National Press Club

Transportation Secretary LaHood pushes jobs bill to help transportation

October 13, 2011 | By Joan Mooney | jhmooney@verizon.net

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said passage of President Barack Obama’s jobs bill is a “no brainer” in his Oct. 13 luncheon speech at the National Press Club.

The jobs bill would create thousands of new jobs and allocate $50 billion for roads, bridges and transportation and $10 billion for an infrastructure bank, LaHood said.

“There’s no better example of a traditionally bipartisan issue than transportation,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a Democratic or Republican bridge.”

The infrastructure challenges are enormous, LaHood said.

“America’s roads are so choked with congestion that the average commuter spends 242 percent more time stuck in traffic than when President [Ronald] Reagan signed [the] surface transportation bill in 1982," he said.

More than one-quarter of America’s bridges are substandard, and 12 percent are structurally deficient. That means 68,858 bridges are “nearing the end of their intended life spans," LaHood said.

Given the opposition of House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, R–Fla., to an infrastructure bank, LaHood admitted that that proposal likely won’t pass this year. But with the enormous pressure on Congress on the issue, “we are going to get an infrastructure program before the end of the calendar year,” the secretary said.

With all the changes LaHood has seen in the 35 years he’s been in Washington, he said nothing has changed more than the hardening of partisan positions.

“For too many, compromise has become a dirty word – and cooperation an unforgivable sin," he said.

What will it take to break the partisan gridlock?

LaHood’s response: “Another election.”

But in a session with reporters afterward, LaHood said, “I do think Congress has been able to pass major pieces of legislation. They passed three trade bills yesterday.”

Obama has directed government departments and agencies to identify high priority infrastructure projects, and the Transportation Department has chosen six – replacing two bridges in New York and Massachusetts, extending transit systems in Los Angeles and Baltimore, and upgrading air traffic control technology at two Houston airports.

High-speed interstate rail is another Transportation Department priority, and LaHood said the agency has invested more than $10 billion in such projects in the past three years. The long-term plan is to connect 80 percent of the United States, but that will cost $500 billion. “We don’t have that now,” he said.

Distracted driving has been a favorite cause since LaHood came to the department three years ago. He said about 36 states have distracted driving laws now, up from eight or ten when he started. “How many of you have been in accidents – been rear-ended or rear-ended somebody else – because you’ve been on your cell phone?” he asked the crowd. “Put it in your glove compartment while you’re driving.”

The last question touched on new driving technology.

“If I get one of those new cars made by Google that drives itself, will I be able to text on my way to work again?”

“No,” came the emphatic reply.