US Department of Transportation Secretary Should Know Something About Transportation

In 2009, President Obama shocked the transportation world by choosing Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation. President Obama chose the Republican House member from Illinois for his Washington experience, his ability to reach across the aisle to Republicans and because the President wanted a Republican member of his cabinet. Transportation groups across the political spectrum reacted the same way when Obama announced LaHood—Who?

Most transportation professionals have been less than thrilled with LaHood’s tenure as Secretary of Transportation. LaHood, who will be retiring in less than a year, has focused much of his energy crusading against distracted driving. Safety is important but it is a very small part of a very large field. Most transportation types are more interested in enacting a long-term transportation bill, or creating an economically sustainable transportation system. LaHood is a nice enough guy, but his lack of transportation knowledge is a problem.

The Secretary of Transportation’s job is to explain to the President why transportation is important. His or her role is part expert and part booster. Most Presidents have no experience in transportation preferring sexier issues such as health care or taxes. Has LaHood been effective? What has the Obama-LaHood team brought us? Three plus years into the President’s term we still do not have a surface transportation bill. Congress recently passed an Aviation bill but not before the President created an additional hurdle by changing the unionization rules. Worse, we have no transportation vision. What is the federal government’s proper role in transportation? What is the future of transportation?

To be fair, the problem did not start with LaHood. However, the expiration of SAFETEA-LU provided an excellent opportunity to start the conversation. The White House missed a golden opportunity. Congress has started discussing the issue but the White House has either stayed silent or proposed totally unrealistic legislation. The President’s 2012 Transportation budget was so unrealistic that both Democrats and Republicans dismissed it. Again, the White House included its version of a transportation bank that is really a loan program in disguise. This “infrastructure bank” has failed to pass either chamber multiple times. Recently, the White House signaled it would be happy with most any multiyear transportation bill that the Senate passes. Is this vision? Is this leadership? Would we be in this situation with a Secretary of Transportation with 10-20 years of experience in the Transportation field? It is doubtful.

LaHood served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 1995 until 2000 when he chose to move on to other issues. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee he did not work on transportation funding. In researching LaHood’s congressional activity, there is little actual transportation work. Prior to being appointed Secretary, LaHood replaced a rail right of way with a greenway and helped secure funds for the improvement of a road in his district. He sponsored a bill easing the process of claiming tax exemptions for transit ridership and argued against Amtrak serving Peoria. That’s about it. Members who never served on a transportation-related committee have more impressive transportation backgrounds than Secretary LaHood.

What were the backgrounds of the past Secretaries of Transportation?

Republican Mary Peters, George W Bush’s 2nd Secretary of Transporation, led the Arizona Department of Transportation, was a top leader in the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and was active in both the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and the Transportation Research Board. She won the Women’s Transportation Seminar person of the year award in 2004. Before becoming secretary she served as national director for transportation policy and consulting at HDR.

Democrat Norman Mineta, George W Bush’s first Secretary of Transportation, chaired the House Public Works and Transportation Committee, was principal author of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA), headed the National Civil Aviation Review Commission and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Democrat Rodney Slater, Bill Clinton’s second Secretary of Transportation, was Secretary and Chairman of the Arkansas Highway Commission and served as Federal Highway Administrator where he enabled airline and railroad mergers and helped avert a strike at AMTRAK.

Democrat Fredrico Pena, Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Transportation, was Mayor of Denver where he oversaw of Denver’s new International Airport, worked in transportation pension reform and served on Clinton’s transportation transition team.

Republican Andrew Card, George H.W. Bush’s second Secretary of Transportation, was a structural design engineer. Mr. Card attended the Merchant Marine Academy, produced a White Paper on Transportation that focused on intermodal transportation and created transportation policy with Samuel Skinner.

Republican Samuel Skinner, George H. W. Bush’s First Secretary of Transportation, was head of the regional transportation authority of Illinois and transportation advisor to James R Thompson.

While their transportation experience varied, all of these secretaries had more experience than LaHood. They each served in elected or appointed transportation positions for a minimum of five years before they were appointed U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

No U.S. president would appoint a Secretary of State with no foreign policy experience or a Secretary of Defense with no military knowledge. Why should the President appoint a Secretary of Transportation with no professional transportation experience?

With LaHood’s retirement, whoever wins the 2012 election will choose a new Secretary of Transportation. Let us hope they choose one with an actual transportation background.