Last week The Mechanic and I attended a town hall talk at George Washington University with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
I have been following his blog, Fast Lane, since I started my new job in transportation demand management (TDM), when my boss recommended it among others. When I told her I was going to hear Secretary LaHood, she said that he really gets the whole thing, smart streets and TDM, and she enjoys hearing him talk. After an hour with him, I understood why.
I guess I don’t expect politicians to all be personable, honest, and frank with their audiences. Perhaps it was because it was a university setting, college students in the audience, and Secretary LaHood had started off as a civics teacher, but he was surprisingly open about himself, his career path, and current politics. He told us how he ended up, as a Republican, appointed to the Obama administration (working well and being friends with Rahm Emanuel, and working well with then-Senator Obama), emphasizing, not for the first time, how important it is to work well with others. “To solve problems, help other people,” he said, stating that in politics it is about building relationships to get stuff done. (That being said, he admitted that there are many in office right now who don’t want to do anything because it will be seen as helping or working with the president.)
I was a bit worried that the talk would never get around to it’s topic – “On the Go: Ensuring a Quality Transportation System,” but eventually it did. Proving my boss correct, LaHood said “The people want mass transit – we don’t sit around at DOT making this stuff up.” He wants to provide what people want – buses, light rail, streetcars, subway systems – not to replace cars, but to give people different ways to get around.
Although the conversations were wide ranging (I’d like to add that all but maybe two of the people asking questions were male – I really wanted to get up and ask something but couldn’t think of anything intelligent enough), Secretary LaHood answered everything honestly and openly. Well, he did refuse to talk about the tax-per-mile issue, which apparently got him into trouble a few years ago. I had to look it up and find out what the drama was – but was still impressed that he answered every other question.
There were three big take-aways from the evening for me. One was that cities and states that have good multi-use roads and smart cities is because the mayors and governors come to DOT wanting it, which means they are officials elected by people who want these things. The other is that there will always be some sort of federal subsidy for transportation in this country, of some sort, be it Amtrak, highways, or streetcars. And to go back to Secretary LaHood’s big point about working together and the importance of compromise to get things done.
Oh, and distracted driving – don’t talk or text while you are driving!