Photo by Tricia Scully
Ray LaHood took down the house with his appeals to bipartisanship.
Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood isn’t afraid of being a little different. Joining the U.S. House of Representatives in 1995, he was one of just three Republicans not to sign the Contract with America. In 2008, he supported John McCain for the presidency, but criticized the way McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, was acting on the campaign trail. And in early 2009, he accepted the post of Secretary of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation under Democratic president Barack Obama.
Sec. LaHood’s eclectic political persuasions stem from his lifelong commitment to bipartisanship in the pursuit of making the country work more effectively. As he noted in his speech to a sold-out Think and Drink audience at the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) earlier this month, he is truly motivated by public service. “You can really make a difference,” he said. “You can solve problems. You can improve the quality of life for people.”
But to make those changes, he pointed out, you need more money for transportation. To Sec. LaHood, the answer is relatively straight forward: “Raise the gas tax, pass a transportation budget with a minimum of $500 billion. We need the money.” That’s an argument we’ve been making repeatedly at MPC, where our Accelerate Illinois initiative has emphasized the significant decline in recent transportation funding in our state.
More broadly, Sec. LaHood noted that, “People need to sit down and discuss their disagreements,” rather than standing on opposing sides of the aisle shouting at one another. Those are the ingredients for success he points to in his new book, Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics.
As head of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, Sec. LaHood worked to implement the largest increase in spending on roads and transit in U.S. history, thanks to the passage of the 2009 stimulus bill. This legislation directed about $50 billion in additional funds to infrastructure investments such as high-speed rail (including the improvements on the line from Chicago to St. Louis now under construction), streetcars and bus rapid transit.
The legislation led directly to Sec. LaHood and his department targeting TIGER grants for the Chicago Transit Authority’s new 95th Street Red Line Station and significant aid for the region’s CREATE program, which is supporting improvements to the freight railway network in the city of Chicago.
He emphasized that Chicago was hardly alone in building a better transportation system thanks to grants from Washington. According to Sec. LaHood, the Obama Administration incorporated “innovative creative opportunities to turn cities into livable communities… all over America,” whether those cities were likely to vote Democratic or Republican.
But Secretary LaHood lamented the paralysis in today’s political environment, noting that there is inadequate funding for transportation and that the recent FAST transportation bill, while a step forward, doesn’t go far enough in actually addressing the country’s mobility problems. He emphasized that legislators need to start working together, rather than fighting with one another, to actually get real work done. That’s what we need from our elected officials to make for a better, more effective transportation network.