PI Original Adam Doster Wednesday December 17th, 2008, 1:14pm

"Ray LaHood? Really?" (UPDATED)

I think I just ruined Jacky Grimshaw’s morning.

“Ray
Lahood? Really?!?” That was the reaction from the
transportation and community development coordinator at the
Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology when I relayed the news that the retiring seven-term ...

I think I just ruined Jacky Grimshaw’s morning.

“Ray Lahood? Really?!?” That was the reaction from the transportation and community development coordinator at the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology when I relayed the news that the retiring seven-term Republican congressman from Peoria was being considered as Secretary of Transportation in the incoming Obama administration. “You’ve left me totally dumbfounded. Ray LaHood?”

Since our last post noting the initial rumors, both the Peoria Journal-Star and the Tribune have heard from GOP sources that the president-elect will announce Lahood as his pick on Friday.

You can't blame Grimshaw for being caught off-guard. As she explained, she’s never “seen or heard anything he’s done” with regards to mass transit from his first election in 1994 until now, including the negotiations over SAFETEA-LU four years ago.

So what can we glean about LaHood's record on this issue? The moderate Republican has broken with his party over Amtrak funding, voting yes last summer to expand passenger rail service. In 2005, he told the Peoria Journal-Star that “we’ve got a good Amtrak system in Illinois and I don’t think we want to destroy it by talking about privatization.” In 2006, he received a 66 percent rating from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a major transportation construction lobby. He also voted in favor of the Saving Energy Through Public Transportation Act of 2008, a bill to promote increased public transportation use that garnered string bi-partisan support. Other than that, we know very little.

As Ryan Avent notes, there are now two possible conclusions one can draw from the choice: either Obama doesn’t intend the DOT secretary to do the heavy lifting on his transportation policies or he doesn’t really care about transportation. During the campaign, Obama made some bold statements about transit and the energy economy, so I’m not convinced the latter has any merit. The former seems more plausible. In the meantime, we’ll just have to wait and see what LaHood has to say on Friday.

UPDATE: Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky links to this post (thanks, Mike!) and offers his own thoughts on the pick:

What "transportation" really means here in the nation's capital is a never-ending battle between rail advocates and highway advocates. The highway people have almost always won, of course. In the 1990s, Pat Moynihan, the late New York senator, finally engineered a change in the transportation regulations that slightly shifted the funding formula toward mass transit. It was a tiny thing, but a total sea change, something it took years to do.

Why? Well, most places don't (or didn't, until now) need mass transit, and politicians love nothing more than to cut a ribbon on a new highway. It's the gold standard of photo ops. The auto industry played along too, of course, fighting mass transit for decades (GM killed a commuter-rail plan in Los Angeles way back in the 1930s).

But as in so many areas, now is reckoning time, and the political culture is potentially more open to changing all that than at any point in a long, long time. LaHood has relationships on the Hill -- in that sense, it's similar to the Daschle appointment -- and can maybe bring a few moderate Republicans into the mass-transit fold. I suppose that's the thinking. We'll see how it works.

Check out our follow-up post on December 18: "Looking Under LaHood."

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