Interview with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood

In our ongoing series of interviews with cabinet officials, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spoke to The Hill’s Comment Editor Emmanuel Touhey Monday.  The secretary called on Congress to approve President Obama's $50 billion investment in infrastructure after the election and to lay the ground work for a new six-year transportation bill that he would like to see pass next year.  He also offered a strong defense of the president and called on Congress to work with the administration to solve the country’s problems.

The Hill: Congressman John Mica (R-Fla.) says that by any objective evaluation the stimulus bill has dramatically failed to turn around our economy. How would you respond to that criticism?
Secretary LaHood: Well, as we speak, there are 14,000 projects going on in America. Thousands of people are working. We just now have obligated almost all of our 48 billion dollars. All you have to do is travel around America as I have to more than 90 cities, more than about 40 states, and all you see around America are orange cones and orange barrels. And you also see thousands of people working. I think it belies belief that anybody in the country who hasn’t been around the country, or in their own state, or their own district doesn’t see people, like their friends and neighbors, who are working, building roads, building bridges. These are their friends and neighbors that are making a good wage.
That would not have happened if we hadn’t have had the economic recovery. If we hadn’t have had the stimulus bill, none of these people would be working, none of these roads would be under repair, none of these bridges would be under repair. All of the work that’s taken place over the last 20 months has been a direct result of the economic stimulus program that has put thousands of people to work with 14,000 projects right now going on in America.
The Hill: A lot Republicans have criticized the stimulus, yet some have called your office and asked for help for funding in their districts. Why do you think they say one thing in public and another thing in private?
Secretary LaHood: Oh, I don’t know, you’ll have to talk to members of Congress about that. I know this. I know that every member of Congress that I’ve ever talked to, that’s ever called me, that I’ve been with is very thankful that this money has gone out over the last twenty months, that their friends and neighbors, that their constituents are working, that the roads and bridges in their communities are being fixed up.
I’ve never had a member of Congress say “Don’t send the money. Don’t fix up the roads in my District. Don’t fix up the bridges. Don’t put my constituents to work.” What they’ve all said to me is “This is something that’s working that is really benefiting people in America.”
The Hill: The president had a $50 billion proposal on Labor Day for infrastructure. Where do you see that going? So far It hasn’t gone anywhere as of yet.
Secretary LaHood: Well the president really announced two big initiatives. I was in Milwaukee and heard the president’s speech.  Number one, he said we need a six-year bill. We need a long-term vision, a long-term plan for high-speed rail, for roads, for bridges, for transit, for airports, for new technology, for Next Generation technology to fix up our airports. The president proposed 150,000 miles of roads, 150,000 miles of runways, and the opportunity to really get the Next Generation technology, the opportunity to build 4-5,000 lines of track around the country for high speed rail and for transit.
The reason the president proposed this, on Labor Day, in Milwaukee, a working class city, is because he knows that what he is proposing will continue progress that we’ve made with the stimulus…will continue the progress of keeping people working on roads, and bridges, and rails, and runways. And so the answer to your question is that the president proposed a six-year bill, a big plan, and jumpstart that with 50 billion dollars.
I’ve been on Capitol Hill. I’ve met with members of Congress, both in the House and Senate. I just had a two hour meeting with Chairman Oberstar about this issue and we hope that when the Congress comes back after the election, they will begin working on a six year bill and on the $50 billion dollars to continue all the progress that we have made. Members of Congress know that their constituents, their friends and neighbors, are working as a result of the stimulus and they don’t want to see a lapse in that. The way that we make sure there’s no lapse is by jumpstarting the program with $50 billion and then have Congress pass a six-year bill next year.
The Hill: So the six year bill would be started this year or in the beginning of next year?
Secretary LaHood: Well it’ll be up to Congress. We’re encouraging Congress to start the discussion after the election about the $50 billion. We’re encouraging them. As I said, I’ve met with members of Congress and when I’ve met with them, I’ve encouraged them, number one, let’s get started after the election, let’s get started on the debate about a six year bill and on the fifty billion dollars that the president has proposed, all paid for, not piled on the debt or the deficit and we’re receiving very good response to that.
The Hill: In the event that Congress changes hands, have you already had conversations with Congressman Mica, should he be the chairman?
Secretary LaHood: I’ve had lots of conversations with Congressman Mica about transportation issues and he’s one that I think would like to see a six-year bill.
The Hill: Are they both on the same page in terms of the approach or do you see diversity in terms of this?
Secretary LaHood: Chairman Oberstar has a bill. We like his bill. And when we met with him for more than two hours, we didn’t really see a dimes worth of difference in what we want, what the president wants, and what Chairman Oberstar wants. I haven’t seen any documents or any words on paper, any bill, from Mr. Mica’s office.
The Hill: Distracted driving is another issue that you are passionate about. Why do you think enforcement seems to be so difficult?
Secretary LaHood: Well look, a year ago, when we had our first Distracted Driving meeting, no more than 10 states had passed laws. As we held our second Distracted Driving summit, 30 states have passed laws. So we’ve made a difference. Many of those states have used the Department of Transportation model legislation to pass their own legislation. So we’ve made a difference there.
First of all, you have to have good laws. Once you have good laws, you have to have good enforcement. Once you have good enforcement, you change peoples’ very dangerous behavior about texting and driving or cell phone use and driving. We know that good laws and good enforcement changed peoples’ very dangerous behavior for drunk driving and we also know that now 85 percent of people, when they get in the car, they buckle up. That’s thanks to ‘Click it or Ticket’ and also good enforcement.
Police have a lot of things to do. When we have two cities- Hartford, Conn. and Syracuse, N.Y.- each a grant for $200,000 matched by $100,000 by the state, within four days, those communities wrote almost 5,000 tickets for distracted driving.
That is what will begin to change very dangerous behavior. The way that we’ve been able to do it with drunk driving and the way we’ve been able to encourage people to buckle up. That is the place we want to be with distracted driving. Good laws, good enforcement will change peoples’ very dangerous behavior.  
The Hill: You have a new star system coming out for car safety. Can you tell us a little bit about it and what it actually is going to do, how the public can benefit from this new system?
Secretary LaHood: Well we’re announcing tomorrow our safety initiatives for manufacturers to really make cars safer. And what we say is, “More stars, safer cars.” That will be what we’ll be announcing tomorrow. It’s changed dramatically this year from previous times. In the past we only used male dummies, now we’re using female dummies. And so that’s a dramatic switch from the way we’ve done it before.
We can now measure the impact not only on just male dummies but also on female dummies. Also, rather than just measuring the front impact that it has on a car crash, we’re measuring the side impact.
We’re also looking at the technology that the car manufacturers are now putting in cars so that if you’re getting close to another car, a signal comes on and tells you that you’re getting too close on the side of another car or a truck.
And there are rear signals that are in the rear of cars to alert you when you’re backing up that you may be getting too close to a child, to a bike, to another car. So we’ve incorporated that into our five star system. So we have raised the bar on safety because that’s our number one priority. We’ve raised the bar on our five star rating system for safety by incorporating women dummies, by incorporating side-impact crashes, by incorporating technology that the car manufacturers are using now.
The Hill: We’re in campaign season now. What do you think is going on in your former party right now?
Secretary LaHood: Well look, I’ve gotten out of the political prediction business. This job allows me to travel the country and work on safety issues and transportation issues and I’ve stayed away from really predicting and talking about the politics that are going on. I think it’s better that I stay away from that.
The Hill: You’re from Illinois. It’s the land of Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, Everett Dirksen, and Bob Michel. How would you assess President Obama’s leadership in comparison to them?
Secretary LaHood: I think he’s been held to a high standard from the men that you mentioned and I think he’s done a terrific job. The president continues to reach out to republicans, to continue to reach out to those who may not agree with him. That’s what Dirksen and Douglas and Paul Simon and Bob Michael did. I think the president has set a very, very high standard for bi-partisanship and he hasn’t been dissuaded by those who say that it won’t work. And I know the president really believes in bi-partisanship, really believes in reaching out, really believes that’s the way that you really solve the country’s problems. I think he’ll continue to do that. I think he’s met the high standard that was set by those who have served from Illinois.
The Hill: You’ve been in the job almost two years. Do you think you’ll serve a full time in this administration?
Secretary LaHood: Well I was just with the president yesterday and he told me that I’m doing a great job so as long as he thinks that I’m doing a great job, we’ll continue to hold this position.
The Hill: What’s your advice to members of Congress today? There’s a letter from former members talking about civility on Capitol Hill. You’ve been there so what advice would you have for your former colleagues?
Secretary LaHood: Well what I would advise members that are coming into this job next January that will be elected in November, is that the way that our country has solved big critical problems is when the Congress comes together and works together and resolves whatever philosophical or policy differences they have. That’s how our country has really solved problems. Whether it’s passing a Civil Rights Act in a bi-partisan way, Everett Dirksen led the way with President Johnson on that. When you look after 9/11 the way Congress came together in the way of enacting new laws to keep America safe and protect our people. That was done in a bipartisan way. And I think my advice is “If you really want to make a difference, if you really want to get something done, you have to be willing to work with people on both sides of the aisle.” That’s the way that Congress and our country have solved big problems.
The Hill: Final question for you. You proposed a mileage tax over a year ago. It was shot down. Was that a disappointment to you? Or in retrospect, was that a mistake for you to propose something like that?
Secretary LaHood: Well that was in the context of a number of things that I talked about and what I said was there was a lot of things that Congress was going to be talking about and debating a lot of different issues about how to pay for our transportation needs and so it was in the context of a number of different things that I talked about. I think what was not stated was that the president does not want to raise the gas tax. When you get to have 10 percent unemployment nationally, it gets to be very difficult to be telling people that you’re going to raise the gas tax. I’ve never swayed from that statement and I believe that’s what we really need to thing about as we move ahead.
The Hill: Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for your time.