Governing magazine: State and local government news for America's leaders

Who May be the Next Transportation Secretary?

If Ray LaHood moves on, a new secretary would take office at a time when transportation faces big challenges.
by | November 15, 2012

Updated 1/29/2013, 11:35 a.m.: LaHood has announced he will not serve for the president's second term and will resign once his succesor is confirmed.

As President Barack Obama begins his transition into a second term, transportation stakeholders and advocates are wondering who he'll tap to join his cabinet as the next transportation secretary.

About this time a year ago, Ray LaHood signaled that he would step down after the president's first term. But he hasn't discussed his future plans lately, leaving some in the transportation community to speculate about whether he's going anywhere.

Now, a favorite guessing game among transportation wonks has become who would be LaHood's replacement if he does, in fact, step aside. Governing takes a look at some of the candidates whose names have been bandied about and other officials who might be worth a look.

But the list should be taken with a grain of salt: LaHood, though familiar with transportation, wasn't considered a major player in the field before becoming secretary, and he initially was gunning for a spot as the secretary of agriculture.

STAR POWER

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

The Los Angeles mayor tops just about everyone's list of possible DOT secretaries. Villaraigosa has made transportation one of his priorities since assuming office in 2005. In addition to being mayor, he's served as chairman of L.A. County's transportation authority, and in 2008, he was one of the most vocal advocates for a landmark ballot measure in which county voters approved a half-cent sales tax increase for 30 years to pay for transportation projects. More recently, he was engaged in the discussion about the latest federal surface transportation bill and served as a leading voice for a proposal that was ultimately enacted to vastly expand TIFIA, the federal government's program for financing big infrastructure projects. As a charismatic Latino, there's also a political benefit to his selection. Villaraigosa is term-limited and ineligible to run for re-election next year, but if he's seeking higher office in California sooner rather than later, the timing may be off.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell

The former Pennsylvania governor focused on energy and infrastructure while in office. Since leaving Harrisburg in 2011, Rendell has become a co-chair of Building America's Future Educational Fund, a bipartisan group of elected officials who advocate for increased infrastructure investment. He's also stormed the country, speaking to journalists, politicians and just about anyone who will listen about the need for a serious commitment to infrastructure. In 2008, he was rumored as a possible candidate for the job and made clear he was interested in the post. The possible downside of his selection -- which Rendell himself has noted -- is that he's a big personality who can be difficult to control.

FROM THE HILL

U.S. Rep. Steve LaTourette

LaTourette is a moderate Republican congressman from Ohio who announced his retirement earlier this year. His appointment would be a nod to bipartisanship, similar to the appointment of LaHood, who was also a former GOP congressman. Though he's a Republican, he's been a big ally of the transit and biking community -- which should score him points with the administration -- and he knows transportation policy well after serving 14 years on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. LaTourette was a vocal critic of how his Republican colleagues pursued the new surface transportation bill this year, and by being a thorn in House leadership's side as the bill progressed, he helped force a rewrite of the bill in order to protect transit funding.

U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer

A liberal Democratic congressman from Oregon, Blumenauer is a passionate advocate for bicycles and transit, and he's popular in the smart growth movement. His name came up four years ago as a likely candidate for the position before it was given to LaHood.

Former U.S. Rep. James Oberstar

Oberstar, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota, is held in the highest regard in transportation circles. He served as chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee from 2007 to 2011 and was a constant figure on the committee for years before that. Few know federal transportation policy better than him, and his defeat in 2010 sent a shock through the transportation committee. Like Blumenauer, his name came up four years ago, but at 78 years old, his moment may have passed.

EXECUTIVE EXPERIENCE

Peter Rogoff

Currently the head of the Federal Transit Administration, Rogoff isn't a marquee name, but his selection would signal the administration's ongoing commitment to transit as a priority. He's worked as staff in the Senate, where helped shape previous versions of surface transportation legislation. That background would come in handy, since Congress will need to start work on another surface transportation bill in less than two years.

Deborah Hersman

As chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, Hersman already has a job that touches all modes of transportation. LaHood has made safety initiatives a priority during his term, so ostensibly, Hersman could help carry that torch. Her leadership in response to the collision of two D.C. subway cars in 2009 helped raise her profile and generate acclaim.

Jane Garvey

Garvey has impressive credentials. She previously served as head of the Federal Aviation Administration, director of Boston's Logan International Airport, deputy administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, and head of the transportation infrastructure investment practice at JPMorgan Chase.

John Porcari

Currently the number two at the U.S. Department of Transportation, Porcari previously served two stints as Maryland's DOT secretary under different governors. He's unique among state DOT leaders in that the role gave him the opportunity to oversee not just highways, bridges and tunnels, but also transit, aviation and ports.

STATE AND LOCAL LEADERS

Janette Sadik-Khan

Sadik-Khan has become a celebrity in the transportation community due to her critical role in transforming New York City while serving as its transportation commissioner. She, most notably, covered the city in bike lanes. She also worked to improve bus service, create pedestrian plazas, and make other "green" improvements, showing that a transportation official can have a role beyond shepherding automobile traffic. She knows her way around Washington, having previously worked for the FTA, and though she has a hero status in the smart growth community, some critics have said she has a brash style and that it's hard to imagine her overseeing a multi-billion dollar highway program.

Steve Heminger

Another official who was in contention four years ago, Heminger is the executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the transportation planning agency for the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. In that role, he oversees the $6.4 billion construction of the new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, one of the largest public works projects in the country. He also served on a federal commission that was tasked with examining the future of federal transportation policy and revenue. That experience would undoubtedly be useful as the feds chart the successor to MAP-21.

Will Kempton

Kempton has led California's Orange County Transportation Authority since 2009. Before taking the job, he was director of the California Department of Transportation, where he developed a reputation for delivering projects on time. Kempton also has credentials in the area of high-speed rail -- an Obama priority -- as chair of a state-appointed group of officials charged with evaluating the California High-Speed Rail Authority's work.

Gene Conti

Currently the secretary of the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Conti could need a new job with a new governor soon to take over in the Tar Heel state. He's previously served as U.S. DOT's assistant secretary of transportation policy. He's touted the role of data-driven analytics, which could be important given the renewed focus on performance metrics in the transportation community.

Gabe Klein

Klein, like Sadik-Khan, is another darling of the smart growth crowd. He led the transportation department in D.C. until he was tapped by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last year to take on the same role in the Windy City. In Washington, he helped develop a forthcoming streetcar system, implemented pedestrian safety programs, and oversaw the expansion of the Circulator bus system. In Chicago, he's helped implement bus rapid transit and a bike share program, among other initiatives. In the private sector, he's served as a regional vice president of the car-sharing service Zipcar.

WILD CARDS

Bruce Katz

Katz, a well-respected policy wonk, leads the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, which would complement an administration that has previously signaled an appreciation for reviving cities. Katz helped lead the Obama administration's housing and urban transition team, and he was a senior advisor to HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan during the administration's first few months.

John Horsley

Horsley is about to retire from his position as executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), which represents the country's state DOT executives. But he could probably be talked out of retirement for a cabinet position. Previously, Horsley has worked as an associate deputy secretary of DOT. Horsley might be a good pick for the job, but his selection would likely frustrate those who see AASHTO as an enemy of transit.

Former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves

The former governor of Kansas is another Republican who could be a good fit if the administration seeks to continue the precedent it set with LaHood. He's currently the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations and was previously rumored to be considered for the secretary spot by the Bush administration when it was vacated by Norman Mineta.

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