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Thursday, July 22, 2010

LIVE from Las Vegas: Ray LaHood discusses DOT's increased support for public transit

Welcome to our live coverage of Netroots Nation 2010!

The second round of panels is underway here in Las Vegas. I am attending Transportation Policy for a New Economy with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, moderated by David Alpert.

In his opening remarks, Alpert summed up the panel's topic, noting that transportation is an incredibly important part of civic planning. "It's how we get to work, how we get to the store, how we got here to Vegas."

It's been more than fifty years since Eisenhower signed into law the bill creating interstate highway system, and Alpert argues it's time we move transportation policy into the twenty first century.

Secretary LaHood began with his personal story: he started as a Republican from Peoria and somehow became an important member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet. "I've never seen an administration take on more problems more effectively than the one I am honored to serve in today," he declared.

And even though the netroots may have been originally skeptical of a (former) Republican being appointed Secretary of Transportation, LaHood was greeted very warmly by the conference. He is one of us now.

During Secretary LaHood's tenure, a shift has been made from directing resources exclusively towards bigger and badder highways to investing in alternative options. LaHood says DOT is committed to making "more affordable, efficient, and sustainable options in addition to our state of the art highways."

He added, "We're paving highways... but we're also taking the needs of cyclists and pedestrians into account."

In our region, DOT is walking its talk. DOT is not only helping with highway and road projects... it's also putting money into Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's bike and walk initiative, Sound Transit's Link light rail, and Metro's RapidRide.

In addition to micro-solutions such as sidewalks, Secretary LaHood talked about about macro-solutions... namely, high speed intercity rail.

The administration is backing a $500 billion interstate rail project. "The day will come... [when], over the next 25 years, with the right investment, eighty percent of America will be connected [with intercity and intracity connections]."

In other words, an investment in high speed rail that matches the initial interstate highway system outlays of the Eisenhower era.

Locally, the DOT has crafted agreements with freight companies (perhaps BNSF) to upgrade freight lines to permit high speed passenger trains. According to Secretary LaHood, the agreements will be announced shortly.

In regards to high speed rail, I asked Secretary LaHood what his definition of high speed rail is. Specifically, I wanted to know, is it 79 MPH, 110 MPH, or 250 MPH. (As the Communication Workers of America like to say, speed matters).

He replied that there is no current standard, and that we should start building the infrastructure now and later on decide on a benchmark for what constitutes high speed rail. I was hoping for a less evasive answer, but it's often hard to get concrete answers from public officials. They prefer platitudes over specifics.

Staying on the topic of public transit, LaHood mentioned that DOT is working with Congress to support operations assistance for metro bus systems across the nation. The current bill is written to provide funds that roughly correlate with ten percent of the average budget for a major urban transit agency.

This is significant because the federal government has traditionally only provided transit agencies with money for capital projects.

LaHood's other initiatives are mostly straightforward ideas, such as reducing distracted driving and supporting increased consumer safety and protections of airline travelers. LaHood wants to limit the time an airline is allowed to make you sit on the tarmac waiting to take off, increased compensation for bumped passengers, and reimbursement of baggage fees if a passenger's bags don't arrive with them when they reach their final destination.

Secretary LaHood wants us to join him and stay active promoting sustainable transportation. Facebook friend him, follow him on twitter, and check out his blog. (focusdriven) faceook friend him, and follow him on Twitter.

The other members of the panel focused mainly on their visions for sustainability. Specifically, Duncan Black (Atrios) discussed the many myths of the car culture, such as the mistaken notion that suburban sprawl has resulted from the "free" market responding to the desires of consumers.

This is factually incorrect. As Black noted, we subsidize suburbia by building highways and roads. In addition, the federal policy of mortgage backed deductions gives an incentive for people to buy single family homes.

Another myth he brought up concerned density. Downtowns with towering skyscrapers are not the only densely populated places in our country. Mixed use transit-oriented development, Black argued, is dense too. Just not as much.

Perhaps the most important insight which came from the panel is that we are at a crossroads between the past and future. We can choose to go back to traditional town planning and build walkable neighborhoods with transit and bike paths &mdash: so that people have alternatives to driving — or we can continue to allow construction companies to tear down forests for new exurban development.

The former is sustainable. The latter isn't.

It's our job to make sure we choose the former.


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