Several individuals have emerged as candidates to replace Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood when he steps down, but that person will need to be very proactive to affect meaningful policy, lobbyists say.
The most talked about candidates are Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman.
Villaraigosa has said he intends to stay in his current position for now, and a murky timetable on when LaHood might actually depart has left him as a possible replacement. Villaraigosa's mayoral term ends in July.
A lobbyist who preferred not to be named said Hersman is a real possibility. The NTSB chair has surged to the front of the speculative pack during the past week. Hersman is "very ambitious" and smart, the lobbyist said, but is far from beloved by the industry.
"The airlines hate her," the lobbyist said. "The manufacturers aren't too fond of her, either."
Hersman "probably has a chance," a highway lobbyist agreed, because her selection might offer the president a relatively easy confirmation process.
More under-the-radar candidates include former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, and former Federal Aviation Administration chief Jane Garvey.
While some transportation experts mention former House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., most say he is highly unlikely to get the nod. Oberstar has publicly expressed his interest in joining Barack Obama's cabinet, and has remained active in transportation policy discussions since his electoral defeat in 2010.
"Jim Oberstar doesn't stand a chance," a highway advocate said. "The way to kill your candidacy is to campaign for it."
Oberstar has been criticized for failing to pass a new long-term transportation funding bill after the expiration of a 2005 law in 2009, and pushed for the creation of a federal office to approve all public-private partnerships.
The insiders said cabinet appointments are more difficult to predict than some more visible cabinet posts.
"DOT tends to produce surprises," said Jack Schenendorf, an attorney focused on transportation at Covington and Burling LLP in Washington. Schenendorf said other cabinet appointments will likely come first. "I'm not sure they're that far along," he said of the transportation selection process.
The new secretary will step into a fierce debate over the future of infrastructure finance in the U.S. Gas tax revenues backing grant anticipation revenue or Garvee bonds are on the decline, and the industry is lobbying hard for greater federal investment. The size of the federal government's role in funding transportation is likely to be fiercely debated during this congressional session, as is national policy on such contentious issues as public-private partnerships and high-speed rail.
Janet Kavinoky, executive director of transportation and infrastructure and vice president of Americans for Transportation Mobility at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the important thing is that the new secretary "understand the relationship between transportation and the economy."
"The real question is whether the [new] secretary can encourage DOT to be proactive," the lobbyist said. "They've been totally reactive. They can only make a policy difference if they're proactive."
Airports failed to achieve nearly any of their major policy goals over the past two years, including elimination of the cap on passenger facilities charges used to back bonds, and some in the industry felt that LaHood sat on the sidelines during a prolonged showdown on FAA reauthorization.