By Keith Laing
Transportation unions are urging President Obama to appoint a staunch defender of federal road and transit funding to replace outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
LaHood announced he was retiring this week, forgoing a second term and setting off a scramble among observers to figure out who might replace him in Obama's Cabinet.
Congress is expected to begin working early on a new surface transportation bill, which contains funding for road and public transportation projects, because the current version of the law expires in 2014.
With those measures set to be on the next Transportation secretary's plate, AFL-CIO Transportation Trades Department President Ed Wytkind is urging Obama to choose someone with a plan for coming up with more funding for road and transit projects.
"I think it's important that the next secretary comes in with a primary strategy in mind to figure out a way to fund our transportation system's needs," Wytkind told The Hill. "That's the largest problem the [new] Transportation secretary will have. You've got a president who has made infrastructure a centerpiece of his agenda. The challenge is finding the funding make that vision a reality."
Transportation advocates were unhappy that with surface transportation bill passed by Congress last year contained only $105 billion and lasted only two years. They argued that the amount of the funding in the bill was only enough to maintain the existing transportation system, and they also contended that new infrastructure development requires more long-term funding security.
Lawmakers argued that the $105 billion bill was the most they could appropriate for transportation projects because the traditional funding mechanism for road and transit development, the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, only brings in $35 billion per year.
Wytkind said the next Transportation secretary will have "big shoes to fill" because LaHood has done a lot to nudge Congress toward considering new funding mechanisms.
"The new secretary will also have to understand the work that Secretary LaHood has done to make [Obama's infrastructure proposals] a reality because they'll have to deal with those who have made transportation a subject of partisan politics," Wytkind said, referring to House Republican initiatives to limit transportation spending to gas tax revenues, and to eliminate federal funding for Amtrak.
The union that represents public transportation workers is urging Obama to choose a replacement for LaHood who will speak up for existing transit networks.
"We'd like to see somebody who is more transit oriented, on service day-to-day as opposed to new system growth," Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) President Larry Hanley told The Hill.
As Transportation secretary, LaHood pushed Congress to approve funding for a nationwide network of high-speed railways, an issue championed by Obama. He also awarded grants to new intracity transportation projects like the forthcoming extension of Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway system to Dulles International Airport and streetcars in cities like Detroit.
Hanley said LaHood had done a good job making the case for new public transportation options. However, he said the departing secretary was not as focused on securing adequate funding for existing system.
In lieu of federal funding, Hanley said transit systems have had to turn to "increases in fare and service cuts" to make ends meet for their operations.
He added that he hoped the next Transportation secretary would focus public attention on fatigue among commercial drivers.
LaHood has made eliminating distracted driving among individuals a signature issue of his four years as Transportation secretary, pushing states to enact bans on distractions, such as texting, while driving.
However, Hanley said "people are [still] killed every year from fatigue" from bus and truck drivers.
White House officials have been mum about candidates in the running to replace LaHood, a long list of rumored candidates thought to be in contention for the DOT post has emerged.
— Updated with new information at 6:39 p.m.