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Ray LaHood

LaHood Answers GOP Critic, Soothes Dem Skeptic of Sustainability Budget

As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood tangled with a senior GOP
senator today over the White House's $500
million-plus request
for its inter-agency office of sustainable
communities -- a
new project
aimed at channeling federal energy towards local
transit-oriented and smart growth plans -- an influential Democrat
joined her fellow senator in raising questions about diverting highway
money to the effort.

3697794785_d3950d9796.jpgSen. Patty
Murray (D-WA), center, talks to Transport Secretary Ray LaHood, at left.
(Photo: WS DOT via Flickr)

Sen.
Patty Murray (D-WA), chairman of the upper chamber's transportation
spending panel, praised the mission of the sustainability office but
told LaHood she has "concerns about" the Obama administration's pitch to
send $200 million in Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) funding to
the effort next year.

"I also have questions about how these proposals from [U.S.] DOT
fit into our
larger debate
over" paying for the next long-term federal
transportation bill, Murray said.

Murray's measured assessment of the new alliance between LaHood,
Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan, and the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) focused on how federal officials
would define the concept of "sustainability" as they determined how to
dole out grants to local development plans.

But her Republican counterpart on the spending panel, Sen. Kit Bond
(MO), took a harder line in challenging LaHood on the administration's
ability to positively influence on-the-ground urban and rural planning.

"I'm not as confident [as others] that trusting federal
decision-makers in Washington to lead the process, to tell communities
how they should grow, is the right way to go," Bond said, tangling with
LaHood as he aligned with a road construction industry group that
criticized the administration's sustainability budget.

Sending that $200 million from highways -- about one-two-hundredth
of the FHWA's annual budget -- to the sustainable communities office
"may reflect a view that we want to get rid of auto transportation,"
Bond said.

"The idea we're giving up on [roads] or don't care about the
highways is nonsense," LaHood shot back. "People want other
alternatives. We have a state-of-the-art interstate system. If people
need more capacity, they can tell us that."

Bond's reply was equally charged: "I'm telling you that."

Murray and Bond's panel is charged with translating the White House
budget request into annual spending legislation for the U.S. DOT and
HUD. Congress ultimately
approved
the administration's proposed $150 million in
sustainability grants last year, but this year's higher funding pitch
could face a tougher path to passage amid the lack of progress on a new
six-year federal transport bill.

Still, that continued reliance on extensions of existing
transportation law -- which have necessitated a transfer of more than
$30 billion from the general Treasury to the highway trust fund since
2008 -- gave LaHood ammunition against Bond and Murray's complaint that
road users would be ceding that $200 million in highway money to the
sustainability office.

When lawmakers pay for transport programs from the general
Treasury, LaHood said, "part of that money comes ... from all
the taxpayers -- who, in some instances, want something other than
roads. I have to put that on the record."

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