Ray LaHood.Ray LaHood.Wednesday’s surprise pick of Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) to head the Department of Transportation caught greenies and urban-planning types off guard. Though they’re not condemning the pick, they are emphasizing that transit will be a major challenge and that the next secretary needs to be up to the task.

LaHood has served on the House Transportation Committee in the past, though never in a leadership position. He most recently served on the House Appropriations Committee. Many think his nomination is based on politics rather than experience or expertise.

“It appears as though others with longer, more distinguished résumés were bypassed,” Brian Imus, director of the public interest group Illinois PIRG, told the Chicago Tribune. Imus noted that LaHood will face the tough task of rebuilding “a federal system that is truly broke.”

For the most part, though, environmental groups are holding their fire. Or at least they are on the record.

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“Congressman LaHood’s challenge will be to update federal policy to meet critical goals regarding transportation, energy, and climate change,” said Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder. “Transportation in the U.S. is responsible for 30 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions and nearly 70 percent of our oil consumption. If we are to meet President-elect Obama’s goals of an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 and a dramatic reduction of our dependence on oil within 10 years, Congressman LaHood will have to help lead the way to dramatic and systemic changes in the transportation sector.”

“While his overall record on energy and environment issues is poor, LaHood has in recent years broken with many in his party to support crucial investments in passenger rail and public transportation, and he is a member of the Congressional Bike Caucus,” Blackwelder continued. “These are reasons to hope he may be open to the visionary transportation policy that is needed to move our country forward. Friends of the Earth looks forward to working with Congressman LaHood to bring about such a policy.”

Stephen Filmanowicz, communications director for the Congress for the New Urbanism, said that on the campaign trail Obama had shown “impressive awareness” of the need for better national transit policy. Filmanowicz and others in the community had hoped that the president-elect would choose “an expert reformer like Janette Sadik-Khan,” commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation.

“The hope for someone like Ray LaHood is that he commits himself to Obama’s change agenda and uses his legislative acumen and the respect he’s earned on both sides of the aisle to actually deliver that agenda,” Filmanowicz wrote in an email to Grist. “He’s shown a refreshing willingness to cross party lines to make smart votes on preserving Amtrak and address climate change through expanded public transportation. And he knows the appropriations process inside and out. To that extent, he reflects Obama’s preference for respected political insiders over visionary reformers.”

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Off the record, some in the environmental community have expressed cynicism about the pick, wondering if the Obama camp has written off the Department of Transportation as either unimportant or an agency too dysfunctional to matter.

Filmanowicz doesn’t want to jump to that conclusion. “It’s way too early to say that’s the case,” he said. “If LaHood gets serious about the Obama agenda and gives the nation transportation investments that finally work for people, not just highway builders, he’ll be a hero.”

Streetsblog has some more anonymous transit folks bemoaning the pick:

As President George W. Bush did before him, Obama has chosen to use the transportation secretary slot as a place to show bipartisanship. “This sends the message that the transportation secretary is a throw-away political appointment who doesn’t matter,’ said a city transportation official who, like others, asked to remain anonymous to preserve their relationship with the U.S. DOT. “This is the slot for the token Republican. It’s the bottom of the barrel. A bone you can throw.”

Progressive transportation policy advocates are also concerned that LaHood will have trouble drawing good people to the agency. “In terms of attracting talent, no one I know is going to want to work for this guy,” said a former Federal Transit Administration official. “He’s got a horrible environmental record, he’s bad on climate change and he’s Caterpillar’s bag man. Can we get a worse appointment?”

Meanwhile, John McCain likes the pick. “Our nation’s transportation system faces some of the most pressing challenges of our time — from modernizing our federal air traffic control system, resolving the funding crisis facing our nation’s aging infrastructure, and promoting a safe, efficient and accessible transportation system that meets our nation’s needs,” said McCain. “Ray LaHood’s experience will be critical to forging reasonable solutions to these challenges and I trust that he will be quickly confirmed by the U.S. Senate.”

Teamsters President Jim Hoffa was also complimentary: “As a moderate Republican, he has been a friend to the Teamsters Union on a number of important issues, including funding for Amtrak. We are anxious to meet with him and assist in any way we can to advance President-elect Obama’s agenda to rebuild America, improve the safety and efficiency of our transportation system, and create millions of good jobs.”

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