LaHood Faces Off With GOP Senator Over High-Speed Rail, Livability

When Cabinet secretaries appear in front of Congress’ appropriations
committees, which control the annual budgets for each federal agency,
the proceedings tend to be dry affairs dominated by local concerns and
arcane fiscal debates.

090108_bond_raju.jpgSen. Kit Bond (R-MO) (Photo: Politico)

But
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s visit with Senate appropriators
today was anything but humdrum, as Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) challenged him
repeatedly to defend the White House’s efforts on sustainable
development and high-speed rail.

Bond cited a recent Wall Street Journal editorial by Wendell Cox, a conservative pundit who has penned laudatory literature for road lobbying groups, in accusing the Obama administration of frittering away taxpayers’ money on high-speed rail.

LaHood fired back, remarking wryly that Bond’s home state sought high-speed rail grants and publicly celebrated
its $31 million haul. "I got calls on this every day from senators and
governors" clamoring for an opportunity to build inter-city passenger
rail, LaHood said.

Answering Bond’s charge that the rail
funding process was less than transparent, the U.S. DOT chief threw in
a bold claim: "I don’t know of one lobbyist that darkened
our door with an application … that came to our door with the idea they
were going
to have some edge."

A November investigation
by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity found that more than 50
government entities and private companies have hired high-speed rail
lobbyists, including the AFL-CIO, the Mayo Clinic, and overseas train
manufacturers such as Siemens and Bombardier.

The sharpest
exchange between Bond and LaHood came on the topic of walkable local
development, which the U.S. DOT has worked to promote through $150 million in 2010 grants and an inter-agency partnership with housing and environmental protection officials.

"What
is livability?" Bond asked LaHood, minutes after comparing the task of
defining the term to defining pornography. (The origins of that
reference are explained here.)

"Communities where people have access to many different forms
of transportation, and affordable housing … maybe they don’t want a car, so they can
walk to work or take mass transit to work," LaHood said, using the newly built-up neighborhood surrounding his office as an example.

Bond’s reply summed up the challenge of crafting new federal transportation policy in an era marked by rural-urban-suburban culture clashes. "I’ve got a lot of constituents for whom
livability means having a decent highway," he said. "They’ve got to drive between one town and
another town."

LaHood
gamely tried to put Bond’s criticism in perspective, noting that
highways received the lion’s share — $27 billion — of the
transportation funding in last year’s economic stimulus law.

Yet
Bond only dug in his heels, arguing that Americans had shown their
eagerness to use roads and bridges but would not embrace rail or
walkable infrastructure. "When did it become the responsibility of the
federal DOT to
build sidewalks?" the soon-to-retire senator asked, before LaHood that reminded him Congress set up dedicated funding for pedestrian improvements nearly 20 years ago.

  • tea

    “I’ve got a lot of constituents for whom livability means having a decent highway,” he said. “They’ve got to drive between one town and another town.”

    There’s more to it than that. It also means cheap fuel which is something that will soon be a thing of the past. I wish LaHood would have brought up the energy issue. This is not a consumer choice between suburban McMansions and livable communities. It is preparing for the inevitable, when sustaining the utopia of personal motorized transport will become too expensive.

    But perhaps that is not politically correct in the Senate? What a ridiculous charade we call “government”.

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