Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on the Politics of Car

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

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.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Slumba Slumba on Jun 15, 2009

    They will spend $Billions on studies and light rail... but the simplest thing, that would actually increase vehicle occupancy, is to allow for the creation of "dollar cabs", or otherwise reduce the barriers to entry for taxi vehicles. Imagine a simple setup where you pay $50 a year to get your vehicle licensed as a taxi. Riders in the taxi get limited ability to sue in the case of an automobile accident (or maybe the add'l insurance wouldn't be that much anyways). You set your own route and charge a flat rate for it. That would immediately bring the suburbs and even some rural areas into having some kind of transportation that doesn't require you to own your own car. Now Granny can get to her doctor's appointment and go to the grocery store twice a week without getting in my way and tying up traffic since she doesn't want to go over 25. etc. etc.

  • Ronman Ronman on Jun 16, 2009

    Leave it to a guy of Lebanese decent to manage traffic and transportation in the US. Have any of you taken a look at the public and private transport infrastructure we have in oh dear Lebanon? there are a few traffic web cam's online, which i will share sometime. however, Lahood does seem to be down to earth, i met him in 04 at my graduation, where he gave a speech about Civility, again relatively redundant in a country which lost most of its civil society to immigration.... in any case, i like the 98 regal despite it being a boat. and i do agree that Americans do know what they want and GM and the other 2 were building what the Americans want, but they were building too many similar models, and not enough choice. in a world of what ifs, what if Chrysler didn't kill off the Neon post 2006, and that car was on offer last year when Civics and Jazz's were running out of showroom doors? I'm not saying the Neon is better or necessarily more efficient than the japs, but if you wanted an American car, which was efficient, you had it, but some Americans chose to kill it.

  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X The push for EV's is part of the increase in our premiums. Any damage near the battery pack and the car is a total loss.
  • Geozinger Up until recently this was on my short list of cars to replace my old car. However, it didn't pass the "knee test" with my wife as her bad knee makes it difficult for her to get in and out of a sedan. I saw a number of videos about the car and it seems like the real deal as a sporting sedan. In addition I like the low price, too, but it was bad luck/timing that we didn't get to pull the trigger on this one.
  • ToolGuy I agree with everyone here. Of course there are exceptions to what I just said, don't take everything so literally. The important thing is that I weighed in with my opinion, which is helping to move things forward. I believe we can all agree that I make an important contribution (some will differ, that is their prerogative). A stitch in time saves nine. Life isn't fair, you know. I have more to say but will continue at our next meeting. You can count on that, for I am a man of my word. We will make it happen. There might be challenges. I mean, it is what it is. This too shall pass. All we can do is all we can do. These meetings are never really long enough for me to completely express all the greatness within me, are they? Let's meet to discuss. All in a day's work. After all, Rome wasn't built in a day. At the end of the day, I must say I agree with you. I think you will agree. When all is said and done, there is more said than done. But of course that is just one man's opinion. You are free to disagree. As I like to say...(I am working on my middle management skills -- how am I doing?)
  • Golden2husky Have to say he did an excellent job on the C7, especially considering the limited budget he was given. I am very happy with my purchase.
  • Marty The problem isn't range; it's lack of electricity in multi-unit building parking. All you need is level 1 - a standard 120v wall socket - and if you're plugged in 10 hours overnight you get 280 miles per week or more. That's enough for most folks but you can use public charging to supplement when needed. Installing conduit circuits and outlets is simple and cheap; no charge stations needed.