Yesterday, an assortment of federal, state and local elected officials welcomed US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood to Seattle. LaHood, who has been something of an unknown quantity when it comes to transportation, is maturing into what I believe many progressive transportation advocates have been dreaming for. This comes as a surprise, due to his background as a Republican Congressman from the relatively small city of Peoria, Illinois.
The first sentences out of his mouth praised Seattle for creating such a livable city and limiting sprawl. Unlike what the name of his official blog, The Fast Lane, suggests, he has been surprisingly vocal in his support of livable, walkable, and bikable communities as well as high speed rail and all modes of transit. Last month, under his leadership, the USDOT, EPA and HUD formed an interagency partnership for sustainable communities which will coordinate and align efforts of all three agencies to improve the livability of our cities.
All of this has attracted the scorn of Newsweek’s George Will after LaHood implied that the federal government should encourage and support less auto dependent lifestyles. Obviously, George thinks that’s a bad thing:
LaHood, however, has been transformed. Indeed, about three bites into lunch, the T word lands with a thump: He says he has joined a “transformational” administration: “I think we can change people’s behavior.” Government “promoted driving” by building the Interstate Highway System—”you talk about changing behavior.” He says, “People are getting out of their cars, they are biking to work.” High-speed intercity rail, such as the proposed bullet train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, is “the wave of the future.” And then, predictably, comes the P word: Look, he says, at Portland, Ore.
Over the past few weeks, LaHood has been touring the country showcasing projects that the ARRA has already funded. Last week he was in Portland to unveil the first US-built streetcar in 60 years. Just a few months ago, he also announced that Portland’s East Loop would receive over 50% federal funding (and on a side note, the recently released Portland Streetcar System plan can be found here).
During LaHood’s speech he thanked Senator Patty Murray for all of the work she’s done as chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. He had high praise – saying she was one of the hardest working Senators he has ever worked with. Senator Murray has been a huge advocate of Sound Transit on a national level, helping to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for LINK – including $44 million to accelerate University LINK construction and planning, as well as $23 million to purchase new buses.
Both Senator Murray and Mayor Nickels, who spoke before LaHood, gave good but expected speeches about increasing the sustainability of our transportation system as well as the job creation that the federal funds will foster. Lee Newgent of the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council emphasized the difference between the stimulus funds and the financial bailout, which got a few chuckles from the hundred or so staffers, media and security at the event.
And then there was Governor Gregoire, who wasn’t even originally supposed to be part of the press event. She stuck out like a black sheep, with rhetoric and talking points right out of the 1950′s. Freeway this freeway that, expansion here, tunnel there, braided ramps, I-90, I-405, etc. She made a token reference to transit in the last sentence of her speech, but it was far from the impassioned and sincere speech that LaHood made. Her press release wasn’t much better, either.
A minor but important analogy for the whole event was when Ray LaHood listed off projects that the ARRA funded, the roads and bridges were last, and when Gregoire did the same thing, transit was last.
UPDATE: Looks like I wasn’t the only one to notice the irony of Gregoire’s speech.