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LaHood: “If You Don’t Want an Automobile, You Don’t Have to Have One”

The White House's effort to promote sustainable communities has prompted serious (and inadvertently humorous) hand-wringing
from conservative pundits who fear the concept of livability will
translate into governmental edicts on lifestyle choices. What's the
best way to counter such tactics?

Trans_Secretary_Ray_LaHood_Discusses_Cash_Jx_HxR08cPwl.jpgTransportation Secretary Ray LaHood (Photo: Zimbio.com)

The
administration's approach, it seems, is to define its goals in clear,
digestible fashion. When an AARP interviewer asked Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood what he means by "livable communities," LaHood had
a twelve-word answer ready to go: If you don't want an automobile, you
don't have to have one.

Not every advocate for cleaner transportation may agree with
LaHood's response, but it certainly marks progress in crafting an
effective message for the Obama team's nascent livability effort.

The U.S. DOT is also actively touting its contributions to bicycle and transit infrastructure, cheering last week's premiere of the Washington D.C. Bikestation -- 80 percent of which was federally funded -- and calling for an end to the long-standing turf wars between different modes of transportation.

Will the administration succeed in quieting critics of its livability work? If highway lobbyists' latest take on the issue is any guide, it may take some time.

In
the meantime, LaHood's full interview in the October addition of the
AARP Bulletin is available after the jump. He talks about the White
House's Green Cabinet, the stimulus law's slim pickings for transit,
and other hot transportation topics.

Q: You talk a lot about livable communities. How would you describe one?

A:It’s a community where if people don’t want an automobile, they don’thave to have one. A community where you can walk to work, your doctor’sappointment, pharmacy or grocery store. Or you could take light rail, abus or ride a bike.

Q: Do you have a favorite example?

A:I was just in Hoboken, N.J., over the weekend. My wife and I took theAcela train to Newark, and then went to our friends’ condo in Hoboken.It’s actually a very small town, and their whole main street has beenfixed up with restaurants, grocery stores, anything you want. OnSaturday we took a train to Manhattan—it took us 15 minutes to getthere—and we walked all over, had dinner, took a train home and neversaw our friends’ car. On Sunday, we walked the riverfront. There were50 or 60 people out there, walking with their children or jogging.

Q: When you tour the country, what are people telling you they want changed in their communities?

A:People want alternative forms of transportation; they don’t want to owntwo or three cars. And they want  green space, biking and walkingpaths, but they want the amenities, too—access to shopping,restaurants, health care.

Q: It’s still a hard sell. Forexample, Sen. John McCain characterizes spending on a bridge forpedestrians and bikes instead of on roads as a waste of taxpayers’money.

A: Well, there are a lot of other forward-thinking peoplein Congress. They care about where people are going to live, and howthey will live. Look, we built the interstate system. That’s done. Nowwe’re trying other things so you don’t have to get in a car every timeyou want to go somewhere.

Q: How are we going to afford all of this during a recession?

A:Well, I don’t know that these things cost much money. It doesn’t costan enormous amount to turn an old rail line into a walking path or totransform a riverfront into an area where people can walk.

Q: Did you seek to delay the new transportation reauthorization to buy time so you can find the money for these new programs?

A:That’s exactly why we did it. Everybody wants to spend $400 billion or$500 billion on a new bill. James Oberstar’s bill costs $450 billion.There’s just no way we’re going to find that money now. Eighteen monthsgives us the opportunity to help the economy get a little better so wecan pass a very comprehensive bill.

Q: How do you see the bill benefiting older Americans?

A:A lot of our seniors want to live in smaller towns where they grew up,raised children and feel safe. So we’ve got to make sure there isaffordable housing in those towns and that they have transportation tourbanized areas for when they need to go to the grocery store, or thehospital, or the drugstore. At DOT we can make sure we don’t poureverything into urban areas, but also look out for rural America.

Q:In an AARP poll of transit planners, two-thirds said they don’tspecifically take the needs of older Americans into account for theirwork. Is somebody at DOT specifically tasked with making sure yourplans address the needs of this growing segment of the population?

A:I have nine grandchildren; I think I know some of the concerns olderpeople have. There’s also a sensitivity among our employees about theneeds of seniors. And this is the first time in the history of a DOTauthorization bill that we’re going to have a livability program in thelegislation. That sends a pretty good message that this is not yourgrandfather’s—or your grandmother’s—DOT.

Q: Or maybe that it is your grandparents’ DOT.

A: Exactly. The priorities are a lot different than they were five years ago.

Q: Within the president’s Cabinet, you’re also a member of a smaller group called the “Green Cabinet.” What is that?

A:When we first got into these jobs, Carol Browner [the president’sassistant for energy and climate change] gathered six or seven Cabinetsecretaries around a table, and now it’s turned into the Green Cabinet.It’s Cabinet members like Interior, Agriculture and EPA, who areworking on green jobs, sustainability, livable communities, affordablehousing.

We get lunch together once a month and find ways we canshare resources. The DOT, for example, is working with the EPA on fuelstandards for automobiles. By 2012, we’re going to get to 25 miles pergallon. By 2016 we’ll get to 36 mpg. This level of collaboration wouldhave been unheard of in another administration.

Q: A lot ofalternative transportation proponents were disappointed the economicstimulus program didn’t become a kind of Works Progress Administrationfor alternative transportation.

A: We got $48 billion, of which$16 billion was for transit and high-speed rail, and $28 billion wasfor roads and bridges—because we could get it out the door quickly. Iknow people have criticized there’s too much money going to highways,but it’s a very quick way to fix up deteriorated infrastructure and putpeople to work.

When I’ve been out visiting these job sites, alot of the workers were on unemployment in January and February, andnow they have a good-paying job. Many of these jobs will last 18months, and by then hopefully we’ll have an authorization bill thatwill really enhance alternative transit and high-speed rail.

Q: Why is the president so interested in public transit and high-speed rail?

A: Because he came from Chicago, where they have trains above ground and underground, they have buses, they have light rail.

Wecan do high-speed rail across the country, whether it’s a train fromChicago to St. Louis that connects up to Wisconsin and Michigan or atrain between Minnesota and Ohio. We’re probably looking at threedecades before we have true high-speed rail in the country. It tookthree decades to get the interstate system built, too.

Q:  Do you ever walk or bike to work?

A: I haven’t, really. I’m not allowed [for security reasons].

Q: How do you get your daily exercise, then?

A:I get up early, and I go to the House gym — as a former member ofCongress I still have access — and get on the treadmill for about 45minutes. I started jogging in 1980, and I’ve run two marathons. And Istarted biking because I could not get my wife to exercise, but shelikes biking. We bought comfort bikes when we were in Peoria, and nowhere in D.C. we go out on the C&O Canal trail along the PotomacRiver, and all we see are families and kids and people walking.

Q: Do you still have a car?

A: I have a Hybrid Ford Escape in Peoria, and I have a 1998 Buick here in Washington.

Q: Wow, what kind of gas mileage does that Buick get?

A:Not very good, about 19 miles per gallon. It’s a gas guzzler but didn’tqualify for the clunker program. But we live in the Foggy Bottom areaof D.C. and walk just about everywhere on the weekend.

Q: It sounds like you seek out livable communities in your personal life.

A:The idea of livable communities is not Ray LaHood’s idea or BarackObama’s idea: It’s the people’s. This is what the people want rightnow.

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