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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