NARP endorsemnent of Ray LaHood as Transportation Secretary

January 21, 2009

The Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV
Chairman, Senate Commerce Committee
254 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Mr. Chairman:

The National Association of Railroad Passengers strongly supports the nomination of Ray LaHood to be Secretary of Transportation.

There is broad recognition that U.S. transportation priorities must change.  This means a dramatically increased emphasis on alternatives to the private automobile—projects that give Americans new and better travel choices.  It also means a dramatically reduced emphasis on building new highway capacity; highway investments should be focused overwhelmingly on bringing existing roads to a state of good repair. 

In addition, construction of new airport capacity also needs intense scrutiny, given the many opportunities for modern passenger trains to replace air in key markets as happened overseas in response to passenger train investments.

These changes are essential if the U.S. is to move towards a transportation system that deals responsibly with environmental, energy supply, safety and demographic imperatives. 

The above references to safety and demographics refer to the fact that our growing senior population and our teen-agers have special needs for genuine transportation choices to replace situations where there is no alternative to driving.

We have heard this nomination questioned because of Mr. LaHood’s lack of experience in transportation.  We reject that criticism.

First, Mr. LaHood served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee for several years immediately after the Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 elections and moved responsibilities for railroads (including Amtrak) to that committee from Energy and Commerce.

Second, we think there is an advantage to having a relative outsider as transportation secretary, as reflected in the following passage from the January 14 Marketplace Morning Report:

Sam Eaton (reporter): His [LaHood’s] experience in transportation issues may be lacking, but Robert Puentes with the nonprofit Brookings Institution says that may be an asset:

Robert Puentes: We know that there aren’t really transportation-only solutions to transportation challenges, so you do want somebody who has a broad perspective on these issues.

Clearly, there will be massive resistance to change.  For example, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials—your tax dollars at work!—seeks an 80% increase in highway spending.  This is wrapped in a cloak of “change” by advocating the same percentage increase for transit and dedicated funding for intercity passenger rail, but there is a crying need to make sure that highway spending increases are focused on fixing existing roads.  New capacity must not continue to slip under the radar screen while state DOT rhetoric focuses on “fix it first” and “we can’t build our way out,” a phrase frequently used by to distract the public from the fact that highway expenditures tend to emphasize new capacity rather than restoring existing roads to a state of good repair.

Finally, we appreciate the fact that Mr. LaHood—at the news conference where he was introduced—mentioned Amtrak first in discussing the new emphases that U.S. transportation policy needs.

Thank you for considering our views.

Ross B. Capon

cc:  The Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison