LaHood: ‘About Everything We Do Around Here is Government Intrusion’

Ray LaHood is known for his disarming candor — his recent admission
that he’s not "that great a transportation person" being a case in
point — and those qualities were on vivid display today as the
Transportation Secretary delivered an address to the National Press
Club.

LaHood’s speech was aimed at countering a recent flurry of media coverage that questioned the potential for success, as well as the spend-out rate, of the White House’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan. But his feistiest pushback ended up coming in response to the George Will column that already has sparked a debate challenge from Portland’s local congressman.

lahood.jpgPresident Obama’s got Ray LaHood’s back — and his tie. (Photo by whitehouse via Flickr.)

Asked if his emphasis on livable communities
was, as Will’s column argued, a veiled effort to "make driving more
torturous" and "coerce people out of their cars," LaHood was unbowed.

"It is a way to coerce people out of their cars," he said,
observing that few people enjoy spending an hour behind the wheel to
travel to work or run an errand. While every community cannot be
redesigned to coax more residents onto transit or bikes, he added, the
encouragement of those opportunities is important.

"The only person I’ve heard object to this is George Will," LaHood said. Pressed again to answer conservative critics
who see the hand of Big Government in his agenda, the former Republican
congressman quipped: "About everything we do around here is government
intrusion in people’s lives."

But LaHood didn’t stop there. He went on to address local transit agency budgets, how to fund the next six-year federal transportation bill and other pressing questions.

It
was already pretty apparent to Washingtonians that the Obama
administration would not support an increase in the gas tax, nor
introduce a tax on vehicle miled traveled (VMT), in order to pay for
the upcoming federal transportation bill. Still, LaHood put the final
nail in the coffin, saying: "Now is not a very good time to be talking
about raising taxes … this administration is not going to be
promoting an increase in the gas tax."

LaHood took a more
progressive line when it comes to state and local transit agencies that
are struggling to pay their bills despite increased service demands.
Current rules prohibit states and localities from using federal money
to pay for operating costs, trapping agencies like New York’s MTA in a punishing deficit cycle, but LaHood said that needs to change.

"It’s
a little silly to provide all this [federal] money for buses if [states
and cities] can’t hire drivers," he said. "I’m certainly open-minded
about the ability for transit districts, particularly during times like
this, to use some of their money for operating."

The
transportation chief was less open about providing help for the
trucking industry, which has been hit hard by the recession, and
airlines that are worried
about high-speed rail cutting into their business. Asked about the
likelihood of federal help for both industries, LaHood was noncommittal.

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