Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood on Tuesday predicted that unemployment rates will drop this year.

During a speech at the National Press Club, LaHood said, "I do think you will see unemployment rates begin to come down as the transportation sector really up-ramps its opportunities with the dollars that we will be providing."

The nation's unemployment rate recently hit 8.9 percent.

LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois, said the effects of President Obama's stimulus plan will be felt as soon as this summer.

"Everybody on this team--this Obama team--is working to really hard to get some of the major sectors of our economy going again. I am not an economist, but I believe, from our side of things, we have a chance to really infuse the economy with a lot of opportunities for jobs which I think will end up helping drive down unemployment."

LaHood's speech, delivered to members of the National Retail Federation, is the latest upbeat assessment of the economy from the Obama administration. On Monday, the White House projected that the $787 billion economic stimulus package passed earlier this year will save or create 1.5 million jobs by the end of 2009.

The Transportation secretary said he was happy to deliver an "optimistic" assessment on the economy, adding, "I am cautiously optimistic that over the next few quarters, we will see some improvement," he said.

LaHood noted that his department has spent all the money authorized to it in the stimulus bill, funding 3,000 projects in the process.

Testifying before Congress last week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke predicted an economic uptick by year's end.

--Michael M. Gleeson