With LaHood Leaving, Who is the Next Secretary of Transportation?

Today’s news that Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood is leaving the Obama administration led to shrieks of joy from transportation entities across the country. The next few days will be full of thank you’s for what LaHood has accomplished. And a few columnists may even reminisce about the death of bipartisanship—a Republican who could work with Democrats. But the reality is that LaHood has been one of the least effective modern transportation secretaries ever. And transportation has a history of being bipartisan that will not change with LaHood’s departure.

Most transportation research and advocacy groups view LaHood as a nice guy who is completely and utterly clueless regarding transportation. And many of these same groups have been extremely disappointed with both President Obama’s handling of transportation and the White House’s lack of involvement in MAP-21. LaHood wanted to be named Secretary of Agriculture not Secretary of Transportation. This New York Times article from 2009 details his feelings on transportation. I previously explained why LaHood was the least qualified of any U.S. DOT Secretary. But what most galled transportation types was the fact that LaHood had absolutely no interest in learning more.

The 2011 Moving Ahead for Progress Act (MAP-21) surface transportation bill was passed primarily because Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative John Mica wanted a bill. Boxer alone did much of the heavy lifting with very little help from the White House. To be fair to the President, it is challenging to know if he does not care about transportation or, if by relying on Mr. LaHood for information, simply misunderstands how an affective transportation system works. When former T&I leader James Oberstar proposed a transportation bill in 2009, President Obama maintained that transportation was not a priority. Mr. Oberstar and Democrats lost the next election. And the passed MAP-21 bill was significantly less friendly to Democratic interests than a bill passed in 2009 would have been. To call Mr. LaHood’s departure a boon for the U.S. transportation system is an understatement.

The focus now turns to his successor. There are at least five prominent candidates. And the White House may pick a dark horse candidate who is not on this list.

1) Ed Rendell: Rendell has been a mayor of Philadelphia, and a governor of Pennsylvania and has worked in policy. He helped set up Building America’s Future to address infrastructure challenges and he has the existing relationships to work with members of Congress. And as a moderate Democrat from a swing state he could be politically useful to the administration. Rendell’s background and his ability to work well with others makes him the strongest candidate.

2) Antonio Villaraigosa: Villaraigosa has shown a passion for infrastructure. And the President would like to add a Hispanic to his cabinet. But Villaraigosa has no statewide experience. He is not as much a national figure as Rendell. And he is more of a cheerleader for transportation than an analyst. The next Secretary of Transportation should be part cheerleader, but he/she also needs to understand transportation and be able to balance facts objectively.

3) Steve LaTourette: LaTourette abandoned transportation in the House to serve on Appropriations. He announced in early 2012 he wanted to reclaim his seniority on the Transportation and Infrastructure committee and run for Chair. And, the House steering committee’s decision to give the gavel to somebody actually on the T & I committee played a promiment part in LaTourette’s decision to retire from the House. LaTourette may not have the best personality for a cabinet position as he has a bit of a temper.

4) Deborah Hersman: Hersman is serving as National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) secretary. She has been on the NTSB board since 2004 and has served as the chairman since 2009. Before her time at the NTSB she served 12 years on Capitol Hill. Hersman allows President Obama to appoint a safety expert to replace LaHood. And Hersman is the rare DC type who does not have strong partisan feelings. Hersman has the necessary transportation background and her Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution is the perfect degree for somebody leading a cabinet department.

5) James Oberstar: Oberstar has been involved in transportation for much of his life. He was administrator on the Committee for Public Works before he served in the House. While Oberstar is dedicated to transportation, there are several reasons why he is not the best pick. He and the President got into a political battle in 2009 about the next surface transportation bill. Oberstar wanted the President to raise the gas tax to pay for transportation and the President did not want to devote any resources to transportation. In a memorable photo-op Oberstar and ranking minority leader Mica claimed that they were trying to put America back to work but the President was stopping them. Oberstar is a major supporter of using gas tax funds to pay for recreational cycling and hiking, which is a troubling idea with today’s constrained resources. He is adamantly against private sector involvement of any kind. In the past, he has preferred that a project not get built to using one dime of private sector related funding. He even argued that private sector spaceflight was dangerous. Rendell, Villaraigosa and Hersman would all be better choices.

6) Gene Conti: Conti is the darkhorse candidate. He has a detailed background in transportation. He has served in Maryland, as DOT secretary in North Carolina and as deputy assistant secretary for the USDOT under President Clinton. Conti was able to professionalize the NCDOTs finances and make it one of the most efficient DOTs in the country in his 4 years. Conti has had a few issues such as his unhappiness with his North Carolina state salary. Still Conti is an organizational genius and the only of the sixth candidates on this list with actual experience at USDOT.

Transportation stakeholders are watching President Obama. Hopefully this time he will pick a transportation secretary with some actual transportation knowledge and not some guy from Illinois whose real job is to teach the Treasury Secretary proper Washington etiquette. (Note: Ray LaHood never succeeded with Tim Geithner.) The next DOT Secretary will have a big job that includes crafting a new surface transportation bill in less than 2 years, creating a national framework for freight, and integrating intelligent transportation systems into daily life. The stakes have never been higher for choosing a knowledgeable transportation leader who is also politically savvy. Obama’s first pick was a major disappointment. The country cannot afford for him to miss a second time.