WASHINGTON - Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., was reported yesterday to be President-elect Barack Obama's pick for Secretary of Transportation, surprising experts in the field who had thought other candidates were more obvious choices for the post.

Numerous news outlets reported that LaHood, a moderate to centrist Republican who has defended the use of earmarks, would likely be announced as Obama's nominee later this week.

The Illinois Republican was first elected in 1994 and said last year that he would retire instead of seeking re-election. He currently serves on the House Appropriations Committee but is not part of the committee's transportation panel. If nominated and confirmed, LaHood may have a "long learning curve" ahead of him on transportation issues, even though he is "very smart," said a well-placed congressional staffer.

Illinois is a microcosm of the transportation challenges facing the country, said a source in the transportation sector, so LaHood could bring with him awareness of the needs for intermodal freight connections, rural and agricultural infrastructure, and bridge networks, suburban and ex-urban roads, as well as urban transit programs.

The new DOT Secretary will face considerable friction over how to fund the nation's transportation programs as Congress hammers out a bill next year to replace the current transportation authorization law that will expire Sept. 30.

Other names floated for the DOT post in recent weeks included former Federal Aviation Administration head and Federal Highway Administration innovative financing leader Jane Garvey, former Deputy Secretary of Transportation Mortimer L. Downey, and Steve Heminger, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area's Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

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