I criticized Obama's choice of Ray LaHood, a Republican Congressman from Illinois, as his choice for Secretary of Transportation. Now I find myself biting my tongue. LaHood has taken the Transportation Department, one that is typically viewed as relatively unimportant, and made some of the biggest, boldest policy statements a transportation secretary has made in recent memory. His department has played an instrumental role in allocating stimulus funds for transit projects (including $8.8 billion for new high-speed rail systems throughout the country), establishing new vehicle emission standards, and now, defining new and long-needed priorities for urban planning and transportation systems.
In transportation planning and projects that use federal dollars, LaHood has recently declared that bicycling and walking projects will not be considered any less seriously than motor vehicle projects. In a country where two-thirds of the population lives in the top 100 metropolitan areas, and 84 percent of Americans live in all 363 metros, it simply doesn't make sense to focus so exclusively on the transportation systems that increase dependence on foreign fuels and saturate our air with carbon dioxide and criteria pollutants. Bicycles and foot traffic seem simple and unimportant, but it's astonishing how many people replace easy walks or bike rides with car rides. Biking and walking should not just be on an equal playing field with driving, they should be made more palatable.
LaHood, who goes on weekend bike rides with his wife, has not backed off his statements, despite a barrage of criticism from conservatives and corporations. One Ohio Congressman, Steve LaTourette, asked at a House hearing whether LaHood is on drugs. And the National Association of Manufacturers, a staunch don't-change-anything-about-the-country-unless-it-directly-benefits-our-members trade association, has called the Secretary's announcements "dumb and irresponsible," even despite the fact that there is no associated regulatory authority.
It's nice to see that a Republican is taking the reins on transportation issues, and in a meaningful way. While transportation in the United States has an unfathomably long way to go to even compare to systems in Europe and Asia, at least some steps are being taken in the right direction, and in a bipartisan manner. Now if only Congressional Republicans would get over their propensity for obstruction and try to help make some sound, clean transportation laws.
Images: Ray LaHood (Zimbio)