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Editorial: 5 hot topics with Ray LaHood

Adrian Gostick

(Cincinnati.com) – Ray LaHood, U.S. transportation secretary from 2009-2013, is traveling the country pitching his federal highway funding proposal. He is a former Illinois Republican congressman and is currently a co-chair of the non-profit Building America’s Future. He visited The Enquirer’s editorial board on Monday to talk highways, streetcars, bridges and getting things done (or not) in Washington, D.C.

On Cincinnati’s streetcar: “I’m very happy your streetcar is going to be running in about a year. … I know the criticism: walking and biking paths, streetcars, transit – why should that come out of the so-called transportation bill? Because people use it. Every light rail, every streetcar, has surpassed the ridership that was ever projected. Why? Because some people don’t want to own a car, particularly people that live in Chicago or Atlanta, that can’t afford it or whatever, and they’d rather use public transportation. Streetcars are part of the overall mix. is it a big part? No, it’s not. But it is a part of it.”

On the Brent Spence Bridge: “That’s a big project. I think these big projects, it does take a push, it does take leadership from D.C. … What you do is you offer up the incentive. You put some money on the table – here’s the incentive for the two states to do it. … So that’s the kind of clout that a secretary has, and on big projects that’s what you have to do. That’s the kind of leadership it will take to get this project done.”

On highway funding: “The Highway Trust Fund is broke, the transportation bill runs out at the end of the week, and here you’ve got all these people that are unemployed, all these roads are crumbling, all these bridges that are in a state of bad repair, and we’re just really in a crisis in America. It’s really two-pronged: No. 1, a crisis in funding, and No. 2, a crisis for a program.” His proposal: Congress needs to pass a 6-year highway funding bill, funded by raising the federal gas tax by 10 cents a gallon, with the tax indexed to inflation.

On the tea party: LaHood was elected to Congress in 1994 during the Republican revolution led by firebrand Newt Gingrich (though he did not support the Contract With America). Although the political environment was volatile, Republicans and Democrats played better together back then than they do now, and that’s a shame. LaHood said today’s gridlock in Washington is “directly related to” the emergence of Tea Party lawmakers who don’t believe in government.

On congressional dysfunction: LaHood, who will soon publish a book on bipartisanship, pointed out that House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, sit in key seats of power from neighboring states and could expedite a transportation bill if it were made a priority. “If Speaker Boehner decided to get something done, it would get done,” LaHood said.

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