Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Former Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), Obama’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, on Wednesday didn’t reveal much about how he will handle his new job when he appeared before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, but he did make the explicit connection between transportation issues and climate change and sustainability.

“We must acknowledge the new reality of climate change. This has implications in all areas,” LaHood told the senators. “The inner-city, rail and mass-transit funding in the economic recovery plan are a part of the equation, but only a part.”

LaHood said there will be four focus areas for his work: safety, the economy, sustainability and livability. Transportation programs should be designed to create jobs and improve the lives and safety of citizens he said, and there must be an eye toward the long-term needs of the country.

“Sustainability must permeate all we do, from highways and transit to aviation and ports. President Obama is committed to this principle, and so am I,” he said.

LaHood said that raising automobile fuel efficiency standards will be “one way for us to really overcome some of the pollution that exists around the country.” Tighter standards, he said, should “be a part of the overall plan here to eliminate pollution, the greening of America, and getting the American car manufacturers in the game here with the reality that they need to be producing American cars that get much better standards.”

Asked about his support for Amtrak, LaHood pledged to work with Congress to implement the funding bill that approved last year. “I think it’s the way forward to get us as comprehensive as we can an Amtrak system in this country,” said LaHood. “During my 14 years in Congress, in the House, I had been a strong supporter of Amtrak. It’s the lifeblood for many, many communities around the country, and I will work with all of you to implement the Amtrak bill. I think it’s a good bill.”

He was also asked for his ideas on how to replenish the Highway Trust Fund, which was has been nearly depleted as a spike in gas prices through much of 2008 prompted Americans to drive less. He mentioned putting tolls on new highways and new lanes, and on bridges, as possible solutions, and said that relying on a gas tax will not be enough.

“We need to think about these things differently than just the gasoline tax,” said LaHood. “We know that Amtrak ridership is still way up even though gasoline prices have come down. We know, in places like Chicago, that people are still using a lot of mass transit even though gasoline prices have come down.”

“People are still going to drive, but the resources to pay for it, through the Trust Fund, is a dinosaur, if you’ll excuse the expression,” continued LaHood. “It was developed when Eisenhower and the Congress came up with the idea of developing an interstate system. We’ve come far afield of that now.”

It was a short hearing, with more speaking time given to Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee members than to LaHood himself. He was received positively by the entire panel, which was led for the first time on Wednesday by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). Rockefeller is taking over the post as former chair Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) moves to chair the Appropriations Committee. Other new faces on the panel included Alaska’s Mark Begich, New Mexico’s Tom Udall, and Virginia’s Mark Warner, three of the new Democratic Senators elected last November.

The new chair also promised today to use his committee to work on global warming.

“I think, when you really look at the scope of the Commerce committee, it’s endless. It was one of the original committees created, and its work is really wherever we want it to go,” said Rockefeller. “I think we can be a big part of climate change legislation, big part of economic recovery.”

In other transportation news, OpenLeft’s Chris Bowers says he heard from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) that he’s working to boost funding for mass transit in the stimulus legislation now making its way through Congress. Bowers wrote:

First, at a Senate progressive media summit today, Senator Charles Schumer said that he was unhappy about the amount of stimulus money set aside for mass transit and rail. He indicated that several other Senators from highly urbanized states were also unhappy about this portion of the stimulus, and that when the legislation reached the Senate, they would be jointly pushing for an increase in money set aside for mass transit and rail. The current amount for mass transit and rail in the stimulus bill is only $10 billion.