Ray LaHood Wants to Build Big in America

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood makes the case for building big and bothering Congress.

“Across the nation, over 100,000 miles of highways and bridges are in disrepair,” explains the announcer in this Audi commercial. The ad’s message? From crappy drivers to crappy roads, if you’re getting around in the United States, you need a pretty fancy car to do the job.

That’s not music to the ears of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, who has spent the last three years arguing for increased investment in roads as well as everything from high-speed rail to public transit. Besides the well-documented need to improve our infrastructure, construction projects will create much-needed jobs and lay the foundation for future growth.

LaHood spoke with GOOD about the President's jobs bill, which includes money for a variety of projects, including a National Infrastructure Bank that would leverage private funding for public projects.

LaHood "blocking" for President Obama at a meeting with Congressional Republicans in 2009.

GOOD: As the Secretary of Transportation, how does it make you feel when you see companies like in this commercial assuming that roads in the United States are going to be bad?

RAY LAHOOD: We’re way behind Asia and Europe already in high-speed rail, but in terms of highways, and airports and other infrastructure, we’re beginning to fall behind. If Congress does not continue to provide funding, it will be a terrible setback for our reputation. I want to maintain our reputation that we’ve had for many decades of doing big things and putting people to work—building big in America. We need to stay ahead of the curve for the next generation of infrastructure in America, for our kids and grandkids, and the way to do it is to make investments, the way to do it is to pass the American Jobs Act.

GOOD: People get that that construction workers will get jobs if these projects go through, but how do they help in the long term?

LAHOOD: When you look at the interstate system, not only the state of the art system that connects America […] every one of those interstates is a corridor for economic development. The kind of corridors that will be created by high-speed rail will also create the same kind of opportunities. An example is Normal, Illinois. They’re completely reconstructing an Amtrak stop, one of the stops from Chicago to St. Louis, [and] businesses are already in construction around that facility.

The spin-off is enormous in terms of the long-term economic benefits that are created. It goes to my point that I talk about all the time: If you build it, they will come. If you build a road, people will use it, and others will come and turn it into opportunities. Rail lines, transit lines, bus lines, highways create so many spinoff businesses they become a real economic engine.

GOOD: This administration has talked a lot about environmental sustainability, but at the same time building out highways, which is a big part of your job, helps keep cars on the road.

LAHOOD: First of all, we are investing in many different forms of transportation, [including] light rail, a lot of communities are getting into the street car business now, we provided $25 million for a street car line in Charlotte that will connect people to the hospital, the community college. The point is, people are looking for other forms of transportation, and leaders are, so our investments help with that.

The other thing that I want to say is that one of the first executive orders that was witnessed by [Environmental Protection Agency head] Lisa Jackson and myself was to put higher CAFE standards. Next year [the fuel mileage standard will be] 26 miles per gallon, and by 2016, 36 miles per gallon. The President said we have to do more, and about two months ago all of the automobile manufacturers gathered here in Washington to congratulate one another on implementing a new gasoline standard for 2017-2025, which will be 54 miles per gallon. Two and a half years ago, no one would have dreamed we could have done that. Think of all the gasoline we’ll save. It creates a lot of green jobs and takes a lot of carbon out of the air, so a win-win-win for the American people.

GOOD: This all sounds promising, but it also depends on Congressional action. We’ve seen a lot of gridlock in the last year; what makes you think the American Jobs Act will be passed?

LAHOOD: Members of Congress, while they were on their district work periods in August, got an earful from their constituents, about putting people to work, about ending gridlock, about a lousy economy, about ‘What are you going to do, Mrs. Congresswoman or Mr. Congressman, about getting our friends and neighbors to work?’ I believe we have a window here that will allow for certainly the infrastructure portion to get some traction in Congress. [There is] an opportunity for Congress to pass something so they can go back home before Thanksgiving and crow that they did something to put Americans back to work.

GOOD: Until 2009, you were a Republican Congressman. You know Speaker of the House John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor—what’s in here that will get them to buy in?

LAHOOD: It’s more than just trying to get Boehner and Cantor, it’s also trying to get rank-and-file Republicans who find a lot of these tax provisions for small business appealing. I think the president is going around the leadership and going directly to the Congress, and speaking to directly to the American people, and that sort of two-punch kind of activity can lead to something getting passed.

GOOD: What would you tell our readers, who are disappointed with what they’re seeing out of Washington?

LAHOOD: What I would say is, keep talking to your member of Congress about putting friends and neighbors to work, keep the e-mails coming. Gridlock has not worked for seven months and we have a lousy economy, we have so many people out of work. The way to put people back to work is to pass the President’s American Jobs Act. Thousands of Americans would go to work building infrastructure, thousands of Americans would benefit from the passage of the American Jobs Act, in terms of small businesses, in terms of changing the tax code. This will only be done if there is a strong feeling in Congress that they have the ability to turn this economy around, and they need to hear that from the people that are hurting in America, and their constituents. Everyone in America knows someone who is out of work – everybody does.

Photo courtesy The White House