In yesterday’s NYT Magazine [sub] (theme: Infrastructure: it’s more exciting than you think), Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood talks bridges, behavior and Buick Regals in a short interview entitled “The Road Warrior.” And at the risk of reigniting an overly-political discussion, the man’s opinions are indicative of where public policy is headed (regardless of where the debate here at TTAC ends up). It’s easy to take LaHood’s talk of “livable communities,” and praise for light rail and one-car families as proof that he (per George Will’s judgment) is the “secretary of behavior modification.” But it’s important to remember a few key points . . .
First, LaHood is a Republican working on the Obama team. Partisanship isn’t the issue here. Second, LaHood drives a ’98 Regal. This is not your everyday eco-poseur we’re dealing with. Third, as my carless-and-proud neighbors might argue, LaHood’s basic vision isn’t as unrealistic or utopian as you might think. Like it or not, America’s much-vaunted love affair with the automobile seems to have aged out of infatuation, into a more utilitarian, late-life relationship. Meanwhile Ray LaHood and light rail are in the next booth at the Country Time Buffet, fluttering their eyelashes. This is going to be interesting.
NYT: As the newly appointed secretary of transportation, would you agree that America’s crumbling infrastructure has become an acute embarrassment?
LaHood: The way I characterize it is America is one big pothole, and Americans are ready for their streets and roads and bridges to be fixed up.
NYT: Do you worry about bridges falling down?
LaHood: I don’t worry about it because we have bridge inspectors whose job it is every day to make sure that bridges are in good repair. I do think that the Minnesota bridge collapse was a wake-up call to bridge inspectors.
NYT: The Department of Transportation, which opened shop in 1967, isn’t known for having done anything great.
LaHood: I think we’re doing great things right now. We have 13 billion times more money for high-speed rail than we’ve ever had at the department. That is a big deal.
NYT: President Obama has talked about his desire to wean Americans off automobiles.
LaHood: What we’ve talked about is getting to a concept that we call livable communities, where people don’t have to get in a car every day. You can use light rail, you can use buses, you can use walking paths, you can use your bike.
NYT: Do you think G.M. can really produce smaller, fuel-efficient cars?
LaHood: Yes. They know that if they want to be viable and sell automobiles to Americans that they have to produce cars that Americans want to drive, and they’re starting to do that.
NYT: But if Americans increasingly get around by rail, bus and bicycle, as you’ve planned, who will be buying cars in the future?
LaHood: I think everybody will have an automobile. I think it’s amazing in America when you drive around and look at new homes that are being built, there are three-car garages. I don’t think you’re going to see families with three cars. I think you’re going to see families with one car, possibly two.
NYT: What do you drive?
LaHood: I have a 1998 Buick Regal here in Washington.
NYT: What kind of mileage does that get?
LaHood: Terrible. Probably 15 or 16 miles per gallon. If I had a lot of money I wouldn’t be driving a 1998 Buick Regal. I’d be driving a more high-tech automobile.
NYT: There are inexpensive cars that get better mileage. What about a Toyota?
LaHood: I bought this car in 2000 from a friend of mine in Peoria.
NYT: Do you own a motorcycle?
LaHood: Absolutely not.
NYT: What about skateboards, which are especially fuel-efficient?
LaHood: Nope. Not coordinated enough.