By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 24, 2009 12:00 AM
Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood on the economic stimulus, revamping transportation methods in America and being a Republican in Obama's cabinet.
MS. ROMANO: Welcome, Ray LaHood.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Thank you.
MS. ROMANO: President Obama's new Transportation Secretary--
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Thank you.
MS. ROMANO: --and former Republican Congressman from Illinois. Thanks for joining us.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Thank you.
MS. ROMANO: What did the President tell you he wanted you to do when he offered you this job? What was--what were his priorities?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: He was looking for a Republican. So I met that criteria, having--
MS. ROMANO: There you go.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: --run for office seven times as a Republican, and really to transform this Department, transform the Department of Transportation to the extent of doing things--not just doing the same old, same old things that have been done here for a long time, but really using the talents of the people at the Department, working with Congress, and trying to do some innovative things in transportation.
MS. ROMANO: You have been sort of the go-between between this administration and your former colleagues. Rahm Emanuel called you an "ambassador without portfolio."
Did President Obama want you to have that as part of your portfolio, sort of to do some bipartisan reach-out when he offered you the job?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, look it, when the President talked to me about this job and talked to me about joining his Cabinet, one of the things we talked about is the fact that I do have very good relationships in Congress, both on the Republican side, having served in the House for 14 years, and on the Democratic side also and in the Senate.
He and I both served from Illinois. He was a Senator, and I was a U.S. House Member, and a Democrat and a Republican, and we got along very well together, and we worked on a lot of issues together.
So, I mean, he knew it firsthand because of our working relationship.
MS. ROMANO: But it seems like he's been a little bit of an uphill battle with your own party.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: I haven't been too successful so far. On the major bill that the President got through, the economic stimulus bill, we weren't able to get any--
MS. ROMANO: Well, why is that? What's going on with that?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, I talked to a lot of Republicans during that period, and I tried to test them out on how they were going to be voting on that particular bill, and they were concerned more about the process, the speed with which the bill was passed, the fact that many of them were not in the room and that it was really written by just a handful of people. And, you know, they would like to have the process be a little bit more bipartisan.
Their view is that if the President really wants their support, then they have to be included in the process of writing the bills and--and really having some say in what's in the bills, and I think the President understands that.
So I think on energy, I think on climate change, I think on health care, I think on some of these other issues, the President will be able to find some Republican support because these were issues that Republicans really care about and want to have a say in.
MS. ROMANO: Did you have any personal concerns that you might have some ideological differences with this administration?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Not on transportation issues.
MS. ROMANO: And you're a good friend of Rahm Emanuel's?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: I am.
MS. ROMANO: And he called you and asked you for some advice when he was offered the Chief of Staff job?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: You know, he called and--and said that he was thinking about doing this, and, you know, Rahm was in a very good position before he became Chief of Staff. I mean, he was on a track in the House of Representatives to move up to some very significant leadership positions, above what he was already doing, and one of the most respected Members of the House because of his seriousness about the job and the job that he did in the House, and for him to leave that kind of a position and--the Chief of Staff job is almost as tough a job as being President because you work long hours. You have hard decisions. You have to make the White House hum for the President, and, you know, for him to--to leave that position, in the House where he had some great opportunities, great political opportunities and frankly great political opportunities in Chicago, I just, you know, wanted to test him out a little bit to make sure he knew what he was really thinking.
But again, because of his great affection and fondness for President Obama, I think he decided. He made a great sacrifice.
MS. ROMANO: It sounds like you were trying to steer him away from it.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, you know, I wanted him to really know that--and he knew that. I just--you know, I wasn't just going to--you know, a friend tells a friend- tries to give him good advice, and--and my good advice was really think carefully about this, think about your family, think about the impact it's going to have on your political career, think about, you know, what--what it means for your future.
And I give Rahm credit because he had made great sacrifices for his political career, personally, and in serving the President. And I think the President knows that, you know, he's got--he's got the best person, but I think he also knows that Rahm made great sacrifices to do this.
MS. ROMANO: Okay. You were a very big McCain supporter.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Yes, that's right.
MS. ROMANO: So, when you were offered this job, how did you--how did you tell Senator McCain that you were thinking of taking it, or did you? Did you call him up?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Of course. No, he's a very good friend, and you know, I've known Senator McCain his entire career, during the time that I've been here, and--and I called him, and he could not have been nicer. He said, "I'm thrilled for you," and frankly, what he said was President Obama could not have picked a better person for this job.
MS. ROMANO: Okay. Now, but I understand that you have a grandson that was very concerned about you taking this job?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Oh, yeah. You know, he my grandson in Peoria had known that I was a McCain supporter, and he knew that we were--because my--one of my children was actually an advance person for the McCain Campaign.
So, you know, my grandson is six years old, and he knew that we were all for Senator McCain, and--and so, when he asked his dad, my oldest son, about it, he told him to come and see me.
And so, anyway, I told him, "Look it, the President just got elected by the people in this country, and we're all Americans, and that if the--if President Obama is successful and I can help him be successful, then America will be successful.
LOIS ROMANO: Trucking. What are the administration's plans for ending the ongoing dispute with the Mexican truckers under NAFTA?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Our Department with the State Department and the Trade Representative's Office and a couple of--Homeland Security put together a proposal which the President now has--it will be his proposal--to restate the program with the agreement from Congress, so that we can have a program that provides the safety metrics, the safety standards that Congress believed were not in the last program, and that's the reason they eliminated it.
NAFTA calls for this type of trucking opportunity across borders between Mexico and the United States. So we've put together a very good proposal that really concentrates on safety, making sure the drivers have good driving records, the trucks are safe, and that we can really measure all of that to the satisfaction--
MS. ROMANO: And where is that now?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: The President has that proposal--and once he signs off on it, I'm going to go up to Capitol Hill and hopefully make presentations to a number of Members of Congress, so that we can restart the program.
It really needs a legislative start. It needs to be, you know--
MS. ROMANO: Well, since Congress is the one who pulled the plug on it--
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Right.
MS. ROMANO: --initially, so do you think you're going to have some issues going back up there?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Before we put the plan together--I met with about 25 Members of Congress-- --some leadership, some committees, and a number of staff people. What we've done with this plan is try and address all of the issues.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Primarily, though, safety is the issue that they were concerned about.
I think also the President wants to create opportunities for people to live in communities where they don't always have to be in an automobile to get where they're going, that perhaps there's a bus, perhaps there's light rail, perhaps there's a bicycle path, perhaps there's a walking path.
MS. ROMANO: This is the livability concept?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Yeah, the livable communities idea, and I'm working with the Secretary of HUD, Shaun Donovan. He and I are going to work together on creating the opportunities for people to get out of their cars, to get out of congestion, get out of the smog, and hopefully create opportunities for people to have lots of alternative modes of transportation other than just the automobile.
MS. ROMANO: According to a recent report by the Congressional Budget Office, to maintain our current highways is going to cost $78 billion in the next 10 years. Where's that money going to come from?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, traditionally, we've used the Highway Trust Fund to take care of our roads and bridges, and--and we're going to work with Congress on--on the next authorization bill, which Congress is already beginning to work on to find ways to supplement the Highway Trust Fund, which we know just is not capable of doing all the things we want to do in transportation, as well as keep up our roads and bridges, and so there are some alternatives that are being talked about.
MS. ROMANO: Such as?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, for example, in Miami, there's Route 95 that goes through Miami, and I was just there. They put another lane on that road to relieve congestion --and they used toll--they tolled, actually tolled that particular lane. They didn't toll existing road, but they tolled the new lane in order to have the ability to--to really pay for it. So tolling is a way that you can raise dollars.
We've talked about an infrastructure bank where you sell bonds, and you actually dedicate the money in particular States to particular projects. That's another opportunity that we're talking with--public-private partnerships is--is another way where you get some private dollars invested with some of the public dollars to do some of these infrastructure opportunities, and so there's some creative ways out there, other than just the Highway Trust Fund.
MS. ROMANO: Now, you've taken a gas tax off the table?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: There will be no raising the gas tax under this administration, particularly because of the rough shape that our economy is in, and with so many people out of work, it's very difficult to be talking to people about raising the gas tax.
That really impinges on--on poor and middle-income people, and--and we are--we are not talking--we're talking about not raising the gas tax.
MS. ROMANO: Well, let me--let me--let me play devil's advocate. Traffic accidents. Highway deaths were down dramatically in 2008 and--and because of the economy, because people were not driving as much.
So, if you want to get people off the road, why not a tax?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Because people can't afford it-and because people are hurting and because people are out of work and because our economy is in very rough shape, and it's just--it's a very regressive way to really impact people.
MS. ROMANO: The White House sort of forcefully rejected your idea of a mileage tax.
Do you think that's dead, or is that still floating around?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, look it, that's--that's something that I think Congress will talk about in the context of a lot of different alternatives, other than--you know, to build on the Highway Trust Fund and to supplement the Highway Trust Fund, and, you know, that debate will go on in Congress because Congress knows it needs to find ways to--to really supplement the Highway Trust Fund.
MS. ROMANO: And the $13 billion that was proposed for the high-speed rail is considered a down payment of sorts?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: It really is. I mean, it's just--it's the start. It certainly could not account for all the things that people want to do all over the country in high-speed rail, but it's a very good start. It's not unlike when Eisenhower developed the highway, the interstate highway system. You know, they didn't have all the money. It developed over several decades.
High-speed rail will develop over a couple decades.
MS. ROMANO: So what do you see as a final price tag being on that?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: High-speed rail is not inexpensive, and--and it will require some opportunities from States and from the private sector, and there are those out there in the private sector that are very interested in high-speed rail.
So it's not going to be just totally Federal dollars.
MS. ROMANO: Have you done any estimates of cost per passenger on high-speed rail?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: You know, not really, but I know those studies are out there, and I know that in--in the corridors that exist, they--they have done some of those studies.
MS. ROMANO: how do you see Amtrak surviving, and will it be working in tandem with this new plan for a high-speed rail that you have?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, Amtrak has proved to riders that they can be efficient and on time and cost effective, and people have known that on the Northeast Corridor for a long time, but as gasoline prices went up, lots more people boarded Amtrak trains, and that has really stabilized, even though gasoline prices have come down.
So we see Amtrak as one of the real, real viable forms of passenger rail that--that we have in this country, and we want to continue to support Amtrak. Amtrak will be a part of some of the planning that will go on in some corridors around the country for high-speed rail. They want to be a part of it. They'll be a part of it as we try and improve the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak Corridor, and so, look it, they're--they're a viable part of our--of our transportation system.
MS. ROMANO: The FAA has got to be a big challenge for you. You've come into this. They have low morale, outdated equipment. They say union issues. Where do you start?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, we start by hiring a very good FAA Administrator, and the President has nominated Randy Babbitt, a former airline--commercial airline pilot and former head of the Airline Pilots Union and also a businessman. He brings great experience and great know-how to the job. We're waiting for him to be confirmed by the Senate.
Our two priorities, at least in the short term here: number one, get a contract between the FAA controllers and the administration, a contract that will satisfy what the controllers believe are pay issues and workplace issues, and we think we'll--we'll get to that very quickly, and then really get the next-generation technology, so that over the next several years, we will have the money to put technology in all the TRACONs, all the air traffic control towers around the country, the best technology possible that will allow airlines to be guided in and out of airports in the safest possible way.
MS. ROMANO: How--how fast can you get that up and going?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Our goal really is to work with Congress to determine which technology is the best, which air traffic control towers need it the worst, and then have a plan over the next 10 years to have every control tower equipped with the very best equipment possible.
MS. ROMANO: And the airlines are expected to kick in some money for this too?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, you know, that's part of what we have to do. I mean, we have to put together a plan to figure out how to pay for it.
We're talking about--we're talking about very expensive equipment and state-of-the-art equipment that will last a good, long period of time, that will provide the safety that we want.
So we're going to get all the stakeholders involved, the people that make the equipment, the people that use the equipment, the airlines, the airports, and then try and figure out what's the fairest way to really fund it.
MS. ROMANO: You once voted in favor of separating FAA from DOT. Do you still feel that way?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Not at all. I think the FAA is a great organization. I've met--anytime I'm out around the country, I always take time to visit the FAA controllers. I think they're some of the most dedicated people that I've met, and we consider them an integral part of DOT, and they contributed an awful lot to safety and--and the--and the safety of the flying public.
MS. ROMANO: We all know the story now of Captain Sully guiding the plane where the bird hit the engine, and now we read about that FAA wants to keep those reports of bird interference out of the public hands. What do you think about that?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: I think all of this information ought to be made public, and I think that you'll soon be reading about the fact that we're going to, you know, make this information as public as anybody wants it.
The people should have access to this kind of information.
MS. ROMANO: Okay. So you--you disagree with the idea that--
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, it was put in--you know, it was put out so that people could make comments, and I think 99.9 percent of the comments that were made were keep it public, and I agree with that.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, look it, the whole thing about the--the bird strike issue is it doesn't really comport with the President's idea of transparency.
I mean, here they just released all of these CIA files regarding interrogation, and--and then we're--we're trying to then--the optic of us trying to tell people they can't have information about birds flying around airports, that--I don't think that really quite comports with the policies of the administration. So it's something that somebody wanted to put out there to get a reaction. We got the reaction, and now we're going to bring it to conclusion.
MS. ROMANO: We've just read that hackers have gotten into the Defense Department's air traffic equipment. Do you feel like our airways are safe from cyber attacks, and--and if not, where are you going with that?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, look it, we are a part of a whole group of--of people in the government that are trying to make sure that these cyber attacks don't happen and--and to try and put the safeguards in place. I mean, we're a part of a team that's working with Defense and FAA and--and, you know, we're at the focal point of this because, you know, these--these attacks, we take very seriously, and, you know--and so we're working very hard to try and--first of all, determine if we can figure out who's doing it and--and then to make sure we have the safeguards that it--that it can't happen.
MS. ROMANO: Currently, no single military office oversees cyber security for the government. I mean, should it be unified somewhere, centralized?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Absolutely. And at the Cabinet meeting that we had yesterday, this issue was raised because all of the Cabinet members were there, and I think you'll see a unified approach and a more systematized way of doing this.
MS. ROMANO: Are you working with the Department of Homeland Security on some of the security issues?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Absolutely. Homeland Security, FAA, Department of Defense, you know, really all of--all of the Cabinet is aware that this is a real serious issue.
MS. ROMANO: We're fast approaching the hundred days here, and like it or not, everyone's going to be assessed. So what are they going to say about you? What did you get done so far?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: That I was able to really help the President to the extent that we had $48 billion in the economic stimulus plan. Every State in the country now is starting to receive some of that money. Every State has had projects that have been certified by our Department, and my point is we're getting money out the door.
So, as soon as the weather breaks around the country, you're going to see an enormous number of people working in good-paying jobs that will be our opportunity at DOT to help the President jump-start the economy.
We've played a big role in that, whether it's grants to airports for new runways, whether it's new highways, whether it's resurfacing highways, whether it's transit districts, new buses, and I think we have played a big role in the hundred days of jump-starting the economy.
MS. ROMANO: Now, the President came here last week to mark your approval of the two-thousandth project. Can you quantify how many jobs that means?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: It means an enormous number of jobs. I mean, over the--over the life of this program, which is about 18 months, we believe 150,000 new jobs will be created.
I was just in New Hampshire last Friday.
I was on a road project with the Governor and the Senator. There were 35 people there who were called back to work in order to build this road that would not have been called back to work, and the Commissioner of Highway said this to all the media folks there, that we wouldn't be doing this project if it weren't for the stimulus. And so these kinds of opportunities for people all over America to go back to work in good-paying jobs are the contribution that I think we've made to really helping the President in the first hundred days get the economy going again.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: The President has really put forth this initiative of high-speed rail. He put $8 billion in the economic stimulus bill. That's more money than we've ever had in the Department. That's more money that's ever been spent in the history of people working on high-speed rail, and then another $5 billion over the next five years, so $13 billion dedicated to high-speed rail.
And we were with the President and the Vice President in making an announcement, really jump-starting opportunities in the Northeast Corridor, in the Midwest, in the South, in the West to really get high-speed rail going, the way that we really saw President Eisenhower jump-start our opportunity to have an interstate system.
MS. ROMANO: Your home state of Illinois is getting quite a bit of stimulus money. What do you say to charges of favoritism?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Look it, every state is getting stimulus money. I mean, it's all done by a formula. It has nothing to do with the Secretary of Transportation or--
MS. ROMANO: They're just needier?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, no. Every state is--is going to get what the formulas that we have established--
MS. ROMANO: Mm-hmm.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: --around here are--are due to them, and so, I mean, every state--
MS. ROMANO: Mm-hmm.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: --is going to get a pretty large amount of money, and so there was--there's really no favoritism. It's all done by a formula. It has nothing to do with me being here or the President being in the White House.
MS. ROMANO: Mm-hmm.
SECRETARY LaHOOD: It has everything to do with the fact that they, the State of Illinois, met the requirements, and we'll get the money according to the formulas established.
MS. ROMANO: The economic downturn has reduced the number of people that are flying. Does this impact how you're going to spend your money since, you know, people aren't flying as much right now?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, the economy is affecting everything. I mean, people are driving less, people are flying less, and--and we know that people's budgets are impacted, and so we--you know, we have to--we have to live with that part of--of the impact it's having on the economy and make those adjustments, but, you know, hopefully, our part of the economic stimulus is going to get the economy going to the extent that people can, you know, use the forms of transportation that they've been accustomed to.
MS. ROMANO: Speaking of the airlines, Standard & Poor's had a report, I think, just this week that said that there's going to be further downgrades on credit and other issues.
Do you think that the Federal Government should look at shoring up, shipping companies and airlines similar to what they're doing in the auto industry?
SECRETARY LaHOOD: Well, look it, I give the airline industry a lot of credit. They have gone through a very, very tough time, and some of them have had to go into bankruptcy and reorganize, but they're better companies for it.
Some of them have had to go to their unions and--and renegotiate contracts. There's been a lot of good leadership on the part of the airlines to get them back into a position to where people are flying and to where they have the kind of flights and routes, where they can begin to make some money, and they've gone through a tough time, but I think they've benefited from that.