The federal government is on the verge of spending billions of dollars on highways and public transit projects, beginning in 2010. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood views this as a historic moment in American history, when federal money will back policy aimed at getting Americans off the highways, out of our cars and into public transit and high-speed rail. LaHood steps through the many areas of American life in which he's now shaping policy. (click through for the full interview transcript)
[This is a preliminary transcript; there may be errors]
Celeste Headlee: Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood. Ray, really there is no transportation system in most of the country and to build a high speed rail system, you're going to have to start from scratch or less than scratch. So how are you going to get it done?
Secretary of Transportaion Ray LaHood: This is not dissimilar to back when Eisenhower signed the highway bill and creating the state of the art interstate system we have in America. It took 4 decades to do it, we will not be dissuaded by how long it takes or how much money it takes 'cause this is the Presidents dream, it's the Vice Presidents dream and its what people in America want. And other governments have done this because of the determination and the resources they put forth.
John Hockenberry: But you've raised the very obstacle that politically is in your way. That Eisenhower interstate system is mostly what the Department of Transportation has to focus on and getting off of the highway sort of, addiction and on to the public transit light rail sort of mission is very, very difficult and that's your job, that's your department.
RAY LAHOOD: Well, in the economic recovery plan $28 billion for highways, $8 billion for transit like street cars, light rail, buses, and $8 billion for high speed rail. That’s 16 billion dollars for something other than highways and it’s 8 billion times more than we've ever had at D.O.T. for high speed rail.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: Celeste and I were doing a little wagering this morning, we were saying alright where are they going to pilot? Where do they want to pilot? Is it Atlanta to Miami? Is it Detroit-Chicago? Is it Detroit-Saint Louis? Chicago-Saint Louis? Salt Lake-Denver? Where do you pilot a light rail system?
RAY LAHOOD: Yes, yes, yes –
CELESTE HEADLEE: – Yes to all of those, with 8 billion dollars –
RAY LAHOOD: – No, look, there's good proposals coming from all over America and there are companies that want to build this infrastructure, whether its the train sets or the train tracks or whatever. So there's gonna be some private money involved here, high-speed rail, passenger rails, coming to America.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Let's go back to what John was talking about, which is our high speed addiction to highways and our automobiles. We recently had the cash for clunkers program which everyone points to as a success and in terms of finances and businesses, it was a success, it did help the auto companies. But there’s also this problem that 1 out of 7 vehicles that people purchased through cash for clunkers program got less than 20 miles per gallon and that has some environmentalists up in arms.
RAY LAHOOD: Look, the vast majority of the cars that were traded in got very lousy gas mileage and the vast majority that were purchased get very good gas mileage and that was part of the program. We took a lot of, not only a lot of clunkers, we took a lot of gas guzzlers off the road and we took a lot of CO2. 700,000 cars were sold and all of them get much better gas mileage than the one that now is in the junk yard.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Here's my thing though, through the entire – through this whole kind of drama that’s played out through the auto industry, there’s been a lot of blame, and I’m not saying much of it was not deserved, but a lot of blame placed on the big three for how they're big cars and they’re gas guzzlers and they’re building these gigantic expeditions and hummers and there was absolutely no blame laid at the door of the Department of Transportation which in terms of CAFE standards has never held the auto industry to a tough line on how much gas mileage their cars should be getting.
RAY LAHOOD: This is not your father or grandfather, or mother or grandmothers D.O.T. The first thing, the first executive order the President signed, raise CAFE standards. We have worked with EPA, by 2010 the CAFE standard will be 25 miles per gallon. By 2016, 35 miles per gallon and we will begin after that working – look it, we've done a lot with the EPA this year on setting much higher gasoline standards, and now, we're about ready to implement them.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Ok, well let’s move on to flight. Because our airlines are in trouble, not just –
RAY LAHOOD: – They are –
CELESTE HEADLEE: – not just nationally, but globally there is a new report out saying that next year, across the world, airlines are going to lose 5.6 billion dollars–
RAY LAHOOD: Well, that, we have a lousy economy. Business travel is way, way down. The airline industry is hurting. A million less travelers this holiday season, that's not good for the airline industry and we're trying to do our part, by helping them with next generation technology, which we need to put in every airplane, in every traycon to upgrade the kind of equipment that guides planes in and out of airports, we're trying to do our part because we know that the airline industry is hurting and there’s –
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: – But, Bob Crandall on this program addressed this point directly and said –
CELESTE HEADLEE: – right –
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: – that the problem in the United States is there is no such thing as a transportation policy. There's meetings with the airline industry on Monday, there's meetings with the car industry on Tuesday, there’s meetings with the railroad industry on Wednesday, but never is there an overarching policy where the federal government would have a role in setting capacity in air, in automotive transport infrastructure and rail.
RAY LAHOOD: Yeah, we are putting together a pretty good, comprehensive, transportation plan as we speak right now and hopefully, we'll be able to roll that out next year. We think this is a legitimate criticism, that there does need to be kind of a road map about transportation, and all modes of it, particularly the ones that the vast majority of the people use and we're working on that.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: What’s your favorite way to get around?
RAY LAHOOD: I like driving, myself, I mean I drive, I have a –
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: – What do you think he drives? –
RAY LAHOOD: I'll tell you what I drive. Back in Peoria, which is my hometown –
CELESTE HEADLEE: – Wait, I was gonna guess.
RAY LAHOOD: Okay, go ahead.
CELESTE HEADLEE: A smart car.
RAY LAHOOD: I drive, in Peoria a...Ford Escape Hybrid, part battery –
CELESTE HEADLEE: – Nice car –
RAY LAHOOD: – Very nice car. And in Washington, because I'm poor, I've been in congress, I've been in public service, I drive a 1998 Buick regal, which I thought was clunker, tried to trade it in and it didn't qualify!
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: If you think the Secretary of transportation needs an upgrade on his transportation in Washington, call us at 877-8MYTAKE or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CELESTE HEADLEE: You know, I mean one of the things I have to imagine that the comprehensive transportation policy that you’re talking about is going to have to encompass is safety on any way that we get around. One of the most disturbing stories that John and I talk about constantly is the stories of distracting driving. Is that something that the federal government needs to step in and talk about?
RAY LAHOOD: Nobody has been more passionate about distracting driving than Ray LaHood. When you get in your car, put your cell phone in the glove compartment, shut it off. You cannot talk and drive safely, you cannot text and drive safely, you cannot eat food and drive safely, you cannot put makeup on and drive safely, you can’t shave and drive safely. You can't do these things in a car and drive it safely and people have to take personal responsibility for the fact that, number one, we're hooked on cell phones, number two, they need to put them away when they’re driving. All of us need to do that.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: But do you support as a matter of federal policy, restrictions on the kind of technology that’s now proliferating in commercially available cars that have screens all over the dashboard that do just as much distracting as cell phones.
RAY LAHOOD: I think they're a distraction.
JOHN HOCKENBERRY: You would favor federal limitations –
RAY LAHOOD: – I think these things are a distraction and I think somebody needs to speak up on the idea that unless you have both hands on the wheel, looking forward or in the rearview mirror, you are not driving safely. Bottom line, that’s it.
CELESTE HEADLEE: Well, Ray LaHood, thanks so much for stopping by and talking with us about the future of transportation. Stick with us we’re going to ask you a few more questions for a web special at thetakeaway.org for our listeners. Ray LaHood is the Obama administrations Secretary of Transportation.