Wednesday Q+A With Ray LaHood

The former Transportation secretary talks infrastructure, the gas tax, and Metro.

Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood
Photo: Chet Susslin
Jason Plautz
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Jason Plautz
May 23, 2017, 8 p.m.

After serving sev­en terms in the House, Ray La­Hood be­came sec­ret­ary of Trans­port­a­tion un­der Pres­id­ent Obama, and helped dole out in­fra­struc­ture money in the stim­u­lus pack­age. With Pres­id­ent Trump and Con­gress now look­ing at in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, Jason Plautz sat down with La­Hood to dis­cuss trans­port­a­tion fund­ing, fix­ing the Metro, and life as the token Re­pub­lic­an.

The White House and Con­gress are talk­ing about a $1 tril­lion in­fra­struc­ture pack­age. Is that achiev­able?

I would say it’s achiev­able if they look at what I call the five pots of money. I think you need to look at rais­ing the gas tax; I say raise it 10 cents per gal­lon and in­dex it. You can use pub­lic-private part­ner­ships; there’s a lot of money at these dif­fer­ent in­vest­ment groups that are wait­ing for a sig­nal from the ad­min­is­tra­tion and some pro­jects to fund. I say look at the in­fra­struc­ture bank that Pres­id­ent Obama pro­posed like five times that Re­pub­lic­ans would nev­er go along with. I think you give the states the op­por­tun­ity for tolling. And fi­nally, look at vehicle-miles traveled [char­ging drivers for each mile they drive].

Those are all ideas people like to talk about, but none of them has made it very far on the Hill. Is something like rais­ing the gas tax pos­sible?

The gas tax is tough if you listen to Re­pub­lic­ans, but three weeks ago Trump talked about rais­ing it. That’s a good sig­nal to me. Twenty-three states over the last three years have raised their own gas tax be­cause they’re not wait­ing around for Wash­ing­ton to fund their roads and bridges. Let’s have a de­bate about rais­ing the gas tax; take a vote on it. That’s the old-fash­ioned way, the way Con­gress used to do things.

Between health care, tax re­form, and now the Rus­sia in­vest­ig­a­tions, do you think there’s space to have that kind of con­ver­sa­tion?

Every new ad­min­is­tra­tion has one year to get two or three big things done. If they don’t get in­to a de­bate and get some things on in­fra­struc­ture re­solved by the Au­gust re­cess, I say they’ve lost the op­por­tun­ity.

Over the past dec­ade, car own­er­ship has de­clined and some of the tra­di­tion­al ways of think­ing about trans­port­a­tion have changed pretty rad­ic­ally. How does a massive agency like DOT ad­apt?

We did a lot of work with may­ors and gov­ernors who were try­ing to cre­ate com­munit­ies for people who didn’t ne­ces­sar­ily want to own auto­mo­biles. It wasn’t a chal­lenge for us be­cause we built a team of people with a goal of build­ing liv­able and sus­tain­able com­munit­ies. More trans­it, more light rail, more buses, more bike paths, more walk­ing, more bike-share, all kinds of al­tern­at­ive trans­port­a­tion. We were able to do that through TI­GER [the Trans­port­a­tion In­vest­ment Gen­er­at­ing Eco­nom­ic Re­cov­ery grant pro­gram, which the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pro­posed cut­ting]. I think the chal­lenge now is wheth­er the new ad­min­is­tra­tion will con­tin­ue that kind of ef­fort.

And now there are autonom­ous vehicles com­ing on­line. How does DOT keep up?

Every car man­u­fac­turer needs to think about the fact that autonom­ous vehicles are com­ing and if they’re not in the mix, they’re go­ing to get left be­hind. … I’d get all the com­pan­ies that are mak­ing these in­vest­ments around a table and say, “Look­it, we want to work with you on com­ing up with cor­rect reg­u­la­tions and to make sure these vehicles are safe.” I don’t think you can do this in the ab­sence of the auto­makers.

Vir­gin­ia Gov­ernor Terry McAul­iffe ap­poin­ted you to head an in­de­pend­ent pan­el re­view­ing the Wash­ing­ton Metro sys­tem. Why has it been so dif­fi­cult to get the sys­tem right?

I don’t want to blame it all on the money, but that needs to be care­fully eval­u­ated. … Also, when you look at when Metro was formed, things are dif­fer­ent today. You didn’t have the kind of pop­u­la­tion in North­ern Vir­gin­ia when Metro was star­ted. Back then the cen­ter of grav­ity was in Wash­ing­ton. Now they’re fin­ish­ing a Sil­ver Line that goes all the way to Dulles. It’s been dif­fi­cult be­cause things have changed, and Metro hasn’t really kept up with those changes.

You were the only Re­pub­lic­an in Obama’s first Cab­in­et, al­though you’ve since writ­ten that the White House didn’t live up to its prom­ise of bi­par­tis­an co­oper­a­tion. Pres­id­ent Trump doesn’t have any Demo­crats in his Cab­in­et. Should he?

I don’t think Trump ever talked about it the way Obama did. If you look back at Obama’s cam­paign, he talked about get­ting the coun­try to­geth­er and in­clud­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in his ad­min­is­tra­tion. I’ve nev­er heard Trump even ut­ter the idea that Demo­crats would be in­cluded.

Most pres­id­ents do have at least a token mem­ber of the oth­er party, though.

There’s a lot of tra­di­tions that aren’t be­ing fol­lowed in this ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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