National Press Club

Transportation Sec'y Gives Thumbs-Down to Gas Tax Hike

May 21, 2009 | By John Gallagher

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's penchant for off-the-cuff bantering with the press shined through at a packed NPC luncheon May 21, eliciting more laughs than customary for a Cabinet official.

When asked to comment on the controversy surrounding a recent DOT nomination, he challenged the questioner to reveal himself. "You think I'm going to discuss personnel matters at the National Press Club? Raise your hand if you asked that question."

His two-word response to whether raising the vehicle mileage tax was still on the table -- an issue that got him in hot water with President Obama just weeks after becoming DOT secretary? "Next question."

But to answer whether $48 billion in economic stimulus money tied to transportation projects is too little, too late to jump start the country out from under the recession, LaHood pointed to two guests at the head table: Jim Andoga, president of Austin Bridge & Road, a beneficiary of a $31 million highway project in Shreveport, La., and Willie Fort, a construction worker who Andoga hired after Fort was laid off.

"The more people I meet who are benefiting from the stimulus
investments, the more I am convinced that we are restoring confidence to the middle class, and restoring stability to communities affected by the recession," LaHood said.

As for top priorities at DOT, the former congressman from Illinois - and with Defense Secretary Robert Gates one of only two Republicans in the Obama Cabinet - said high-speed rail transportation and a long-overdue upgrade of the nation's air traffic control system will carry the day.

"We have $8 billion (set aside for) high speed rail because of this
president," LaHood said. "People wonder why Japan and Germany and other countries have it and we don't."

One thing LaHood said he won't support is raising the gasoline tax to help fund reauthorization of the federal highway bill, a move supported by the trucking industry. Instead, LaHood supports creation of a National Infrastructure Bank, tolling highways and public-private partnerships.

"But we won't be promoting a gas tax increase," he said.