Transportation stakeholders in Congress, lobbyists, and industry officials yesterday lauded Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, President-elect Barack Obama's choice to head the Department of Transportation, because of his management abilities and bipartisan credentials, despite his thin resume on transportation.
Currently a member of the House Appropriations Committee, LaHood sat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for six years, mostly in the 1990s. He announced last year that he would retire after 14 years in Congress. Once nominated, he would have to be confirmed by the Senate.
"I've seen him handle some pretty thorny issues, and he is not afraid to try new ideas," John A. Flaherty, a principal in infrastructure at the Carlyle Group, said of LaHood's ability to manage innovative financing for transportation needs such as the beleaguered highway trust fund.
Flaherty, a former DOT chief of staff, said LaHood would bring a "terrific relationship with Congress" to the department at a time when the incoming administration will be pushing for massive transportation infrastructure spending as part of a stimulus package.
In dealing with financial matters, "he is someone who requires people to come in prepared and with a respect for the public policy process, and it's going to be important for those of us in the finance sector to understand that," Flaherty said.
Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said yesterday he had met with LaHood and encouraged him to quickly start developing relationships among the different departments in the DOT.
"What this department needs most of all is managerial talent," Oberstar said in a conference call with reporters to discuss the presumed nomination. "Overall direction [on transportation finance] is going to come from the president, fine-tuned by the Office of Management and Budget."
Committee hearing transcripts indicate that LaHood has not been outspoken at hearings on financing for highways, transit, airports, and other transportation issues.
However, he may support raising the federal fuel tax in order to generate more revenue for transportation, unlike some Republicans.
During a hearing in 2000, LaHood said the Clinton administration "should" consider a veto of legislation proposing elimination of the 4.3-cent federal fuel tax, in part because of the administration's concerns that surface transportation programs would suffer from the loss of revenue from the tax.
LaHood said the fact that Americans believed the fuel tax cut would reduce the price of gasoline was a "problem."
"It won't do it," he said. "It doesn't have that much impact on it."
Transportation advocates said earlier this week that they had seen LaHood's name in the pool of potential nominees, but were unable to say where he stood on specific transportation finance issues.
Staff in LaHood's district office said yesterday afternoon that the congressman was en route to Chicago, where Obama has been announcing his cabinet picks. His office did not return calls asking where LaHood stands on issues such as public-private partnerships, private-activity bonds, and fuel taxes.
But he has a record on some issues. In 1997, LaHood called a six-month funding extension of an expiring federal transportation bill a "mistake," saying the short-term extension would unfairly limit states currently planning transportation projects that require multi-year funding. Republicans at the time had opposed a three-year $103.2 billion transportation plan that exceeded balanced-budget funding limits.
Some of his top campaign contributors over the years have been from the transportation and construction sectors - notably Caterpillar Inc., the Air Line Pilots Association, and various labor and construction unions - according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. But the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors have been his biggest financial supporters.