Battles over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan and health care ambitions underscore the difference between promising to bridge the capital’s partisan divide and actually doing it. Apart from the fray stands Ray LaHood, the sole registered Republican in Obama’s Cabinet. In his first year as Transportation secretary, the former congressman and Obama’s fellow Illinoisan has become a vocal advocate for his boss’s priorities—from green transportation options like high-speed rail to the wildly popular Cash for Clunkers program.
LaHood, 63, has also emerged as one of the administration’s most enthusiastic proponents of livable communities—places that offer ample housing and transportation options considerate of residents of all ages and the environment—even when fellow Republicans snipe at such notions. In September, LaHood scheduled an unusual national tour with Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Shaun Donovan, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, to promote the idea of livable communities.
The timing couldn’t be more critical. Congress gets the chance to reshape the way Americans get around just once every six years, when the federal transportation bill comes up for reauthorization. That bill, introduced by House Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn., is on the table right now. For decades, despite oil crises and the green movement, alternative transportation, a tenet of livable communities, has seemed an afterthought to car-based policy. Though the administration stalled Oberstar’s forward-looking bill by requesting an 18-month extension of the current act, LaHood remains Obama’s point man for helping Congress shape a plan for the future.
To talk about his vision, Secretary LaHood recently met with the AARP Bulletin in his Washington office. The Department of Transportation headquarters are located in an emerging neighborhood that has subway and bus service, the Anacostia River waterfront, housing construction and many new amenities, including Nationals Park, a stadium for the city’s baseball team.
Q. You talk a lot about livable communities. How would you describe one?
A. It’s a community where if people don’t want an automobile, they don’t have to have one. A community where you can walk to work, your doctor’s appointment, pharmacy or grocery store. Or you could take light rail, a bus or ride a bike.
Q. Do you have a favorite example?
A. I was just in Hoboken, N.J., over the weekend. My wife and I took the Acela train to Newark, and then went to our friends’ condo in Hoboken. It’s actually a very small town, and their whole main street has been fixed up with restaurants, grocery stores, anything you want. On Saturday we took a train to Manhattan—it took us 15 minutes to get there—and we walked all over, had dinner, took a train home and never saw our friends’ car. On Sunday, we walked the riverfront. There were 50 or 60 people out there, walking with their children or jogging. [Give your town a “Livable Communities Quiz.”]
Q. When you tour the country, what are people telling you they want changed in their communities?
A. People want alternative forms of transportation; they don’t want to own two or three cars. And they want green space, biking and walking paths, but they want the amenities, too—access to shopping, restaurants, health care.
Q. It’s still a hard sell. For example, Sen. John McCain characterizes spending on a bridge for pedestrians and bikes instead of on roads as a waste of taxpayers’ money.
A. Well, there are a lot of other forward-thinking people in Congress. They care about where people are going to live, and how they will live. Look, we built the interstate system. That’s done. Now we’re trying other things so you don’t have to get in a car every time you want to go somewhere.
Q. How are we going to afford all of this during a recession?
A. Well, I don’t know that these things cost much money. It doesn’t cost an enormous amount to turn an old rail line into a walking path or to transform a riverfront into an area where people can walk.