Today marks U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s last day on the job as former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx is sworn in this morning.
LaHood’s career in public service spans more than 35 years, beginning as a school teacher and county youth services director in his native Illinois. He later served under two Republican U.S. congressmen and won a House seat in 1994. President Obama nominated LaHood to become secretary upon retiring from Congress in 2008.
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LaHood reflected on his time in Washington in an interview with Governing on Friday, outlining the challenges ahead for transportation. The following are edited excerpts:
You’ve called for a return to bipartisanship and civility. How hopeful are you that this will ever happen?
After the defeat of the farm bill in the House, I’m not hopeful about the House. After the vote in the Senate on immigration, I’m hopeful the Senate can really demonstrate and exhibit that bipartisanship is the answer to solving big problems, moving America forward and really getting things done. But in the House, I’m not optimistic. In the Senate, I think they’ve shown that when you work in a bipartisan way and compromise, big things can get done.
Transportation has historically been an issue that lawmakers have generally been able to work on in a bipartisan manner. Is that any different now?
Transportation has always been bipartisan. I was very pleased that while I was here for the last four and a half years, we were able to get Congress to pass four major pieces of legislation in a bipartisan way. MAP-21 passed in a bipartisan fashion. The FAA reauthorization languished for five or more years before it was passed. Giving DOT transit safety as one of our important responsibilities, which was included in MAP-21, was a bipartisan effort. Also, there was improving pipeline safety. All four of these issues were done by Congress in a bipartisan way. So, I think that the challenge is for the new chairman of the transportation committee in the House is going to be if, notwithstanding what happened with the farm bill, he can continue to make transportation a bipartisan issue and put something together.
Where do you see the ultimate funding solution coming from, given that this could continue to be a challenge?
If we’re going to get back to being number one in infrastructure, it will take significant resources to make it happen. I’ve been saying for some time that the debate in Washington for the next transportation bill will not be about what the needs are in America. Everybody knows a road or bridge that needs to be repaired. Everybody knows a transit system that needs new cars or new tracks. So, the issue is not what America needs; the issue is how do we pay for it? I think you’ll see the president and others in this administration step up at some point here and offer some bold approaches. It will then be up to Congress to decide whether they want to have a debate about these things. We’ve tried to supplement inadequate trust fund money with TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loans and with TIGER grants. We’ve had some successes in funding some good projects, but if we want to get back to really doing big infrastructure projects, we need the resources. It’ll be up to Congress, the administration, and the president to step up and think boldly about how we pay for these things.
Do you see us returning to a time when Washington is not unnecessarily in crisis mode?
I think it’s going to take some tremendous leadership from Congress to get us back into that position. But I also think it has to come from the White House. It’s not a one-way street. The administration will have to step up also and be big and bold. I think the president is going to be prepared to do that. We’ll see if the vision is there, we’ll see if the courage is there and we’ll see if people are willing to step up.
What would you cite as your most challenging moment on the job?
Probably the most difficult moment was when I got word of the Colgan Air crash, in which 49 people perished in Buffalo, N.Y. Every one of those 49 people, when they boarded that Colgan plane, believed that they were going to land in Buffalo safely. That was the tragedy that I wish would’ve never happened. As a result, we held 12 aviation safety summits around the country. We got a couple rules to improve training for pilots because the pilots did exactly the opposite of what they should’ve done when the plane iced up. We learned a good lesson from that, and I think aviation learned a good lesson.
What perspective did you gain serving in the Cabinet after your time in the House?
I’ve had a very good run of more than 35 years of public service. I would have to say of the 35 plus years, this is the best job that I’ve ever had because of our ability to really make things happen get things done in a way that I think reflects the values of the president, but also really tries to move transportation ahead. We’ve made a difference without trying, as was the case in Congress, to get 218 votes to pass something. So, I’m proud that we not only have been able to serve, but proud of the fact that we’ve got some big things done.
What advice would you offer Anthony Foxx?
He inherits an organization that’s ready to go to work and continue the president’s agenda. He’s a mayor and he’s on the ground. He knows that you just have to show up here every day, work hard, and use the expertise and the talent that you have. You need to have vision, motivate people, and then good things will happen. I talk to him every day – sometimes two or three times a day. I told him yesterday, after the [confirmation] vote, you should relish the moment. You will never ever again get 100 votes from the Senate!