By TIM ALEXANDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Retiring U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will likely be remembered most for his efforts in making the nation’s roads safer by encouraging anti-distracted driving legislation, including bans on texting while driving, in 39 states and counting.
But the former seven-term Republican Congressman from Illinois, who was appointed Department of Transportation secretary by Democrat President Barack Obama in 2009, said he also expended extra effort to help agricultural commodities move more smoothly on the nation’s roads, rails and waters.
LaHood, 67, of Peoria, offered his work in securing funding for port and freight rail infrastructure improvements and exempting agricultural vehicles from stringent hours of service (HOS) limitations as a few examples of how he helped enhance ag transportation during his four-year appointment.
“I really appreciate the opportunity that President Obama gave me to be a part of an administration that put so much emphasis on transportation, and emphasis on getting people back to work and helping the economy. I think we’ve done some of that,” LaHood said.
This begs the obvious question: Why leave, then, just as Obama begins his second term in office? “The reason that I’m retiring is after 35 years of public service and 45 years of marriage, the two have converged and my wife convinced me it was time to move on,” said LaHood, who also pushed for repairs to roads and bridges and championed high-speed rail throughout Obama’s first term. “But I think this job is the best job I’ve ever had.”
He spoke of the DOT’s role in funding the rehabbing of the nation’s ports, through a feature of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), as a key effort in helping ensure the U.S.’ continuing global competitiveness in export and import markets for agricultural goods.
“I think that no other administration has taken the interest in ports that ours has taken. Through our TIGER (discretionary grant) program we’ve invested about $354 million in ports to 25 port projects around the country,“ the outgoing secretary said.
“The reason we did it is because ports are such an economic engine, and we also felt it was very important with the (2014) development of the new channel of the Panama Canal. We also know that ports are a way to relieve congestion on our highways by getting trucks off the road.”
The ARRA’s TIGER program was extended by Congress and has now provided more than $3 billion in funding to 218 projects in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. In addition, the DOT awarded $48 billion in Recovery Act dollars to more than 15,000 transportation projects across the nation, creating tens of thousands of jobs during LaHood’s tenure as secretary, according to the DOT. “Another area affecting agriculture that I was proud to work on was the idea of exempting farmers from the (HOS) rule that applies to most truckers and bus drivers,” LaHood explained.
“Particularly during the planting and harvest seasons, it really affected drivers that carried agricultural goods within 150 miles. We worked very hard for a provision that exempted farmers.”
Like most private industry, freight rail companies are largely responsible for funding their own infrastructure repairs. But during his term as secretary, Class I railroads received hundreds of million of dollars from the government to improve their operations.
“Freight rail delivers a lot of agricultural products around the country,” LaHood said. “We made huge investments in our freight rail system. Even though they are a private company, they’ve accepted almost $1 billion for 50 projects to improve freight rail around the country.”
A strong supporter of high-speed passenger rail service, he visited some 18 countries, 49 states and 200 cities to learn more about the subject or stump for its advancement.
But his legacy will be his unwavering efforts to make road safety the DOT’s primary mission.
After creating the department’s Transportation Safety Council soon after assuming his new role, LaHood launched an aggressive national campaign in 2009 to end the dangerous practice of cell-phone texting while driving.
“Four years ago nobody was talking about distracted driving,” he said.
“As a result of our efforts, 39 states have passed laws. We’ve gotten insurance companies to take an interest in funding (anti-distracted driving) public service messages. I think we’ve saved some lives and injuries, as a result.”
LaHood intends to resign his post as soon as a successor can be named. When he returns to Peoria, he plans to focus on spending more time with his grandchildren.
A grandfather of 10, he will bring home a treasure trove of once-in-a-lifetime experiences as a cabinet secretary and longtime federal lawmaker, to share with his large family. “We’ve had a busy four years, but it’s the type of busy that has been really rewarding,” LaHood said.