Some troubling news out of Chicago where a relatively unknown Republican Congressman from Illinois, Ray LaHood, is slated to become Barack Obama's Secretary of Transportation.
LaHood doesn't appear to have much of a record as a transportation expert - at least when Bush crossed the aisle for Norman Y. Mineta he got someone who knew the issues well. But the troubling thing is that what LaHood has said about HSR isn't encouraging. From 2004:
LaHood dismisses Illinois Amtrak high-speed service
U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R) said on July 15 he does not favor high-speed rail for Illinois.
"I think it’s a bad idea, mainly because we don’t have the money to fund the routes that currently serve Illinois," LaHood said at the Statehouse.
Amtrak President David Gunn said earlier this week in Chicago that upgrading the Chicago-St. Louis corridor for faster passenger trains is a top priority for Amtrak. Planners want trains to be able to go 110 mph in the corridor, while the current top speed is 79 mph – but it would take nearly $200 million for the next phase of track and equipment upgrades.
LaHood said he considers Amtrak "the lifeblood transportation for small communities," and he knows many college students from Chicago’s suburbs use trains to travel to school, Copley News Service reported via The Lincoln Courier.
"On the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak is fabulous," LaHood added, "and after 9-11, it became the transportation of choice for a lot of people because they felt it was safer than flying.
"I think if we’re going to have a pot of money where we subsidize airlines and we subsidize the funding of highways, that we certainly ought to continue to subsidize Amtrak," LaHood said.
He said, "I don’t think we can afford at this point, with the kind of deficits we’re running," to be talking about high-speed rail.
While funding is his main concern, he said, "People in rural Illinois are not for high-speed rail... They do not want a train traveling 120, 125, 150 miles per hour through the rural areas, and I support them on that."
Obviously 2008 is different from 2004, and the "HSR vs. Amtrak local" dichotomy that LaHood set up in these 2004 comments may no longer apply (if it ever did). But this doesn't exactly inspire confidence in our new Secretary of Transportation, who ought to be someone who understands the ins and outs of transportation policy, particularly high speed rail.
Some may argue that Obama-Biden's strong support for HSR will force LaHood to change his views. But that's quite a risk to be taking with such an important position. Many transit advocates are either wary or skeptical of the choice with one commenter at Streetsblog writing:
Not to sound like a reactionary here, but given the pool of great candidates like Janette Sadik-Khan and Earl Blumenauer, you have got to be freaking kidding me.
Blumenauer had taken his name out of the running and endorsed Mortimer Downey. The Bay Area's own Steve Heminger was high on the list too, with support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Other names like Jim Oberstar, chair of the House Transportation Committee, had also been floated.
There are rumors that Rahm Emanuel had a big role to play in suggesting LaHood, who may be a purely political appointment to satisfy Obama's desire to have some Republicans in the Administration. If so this was a particularly bad place to put one, especially if LaHood doesn't have the expertise to fill this vital role effectively.
We need the DOT's help big time to get HSR off the ground - from FRA exemptions to disbursements of money; the Kerry HSR bill sets up an Office of High Speed Rail within the DOT. We need someone heading that department who knows what they're doing and who fully supports high speed rail. I am concerned Ray LaHood is not that person.
Something for the confirmation hearings, I guess...