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December 19th, 2008
Team of Rivals – Obama’s Republican Transportation Secretary

President-elect Barack Obama is set to announce Rep. Ray LaHood, Republican of Illinois, as his choice for transportation secretary. The moderate-Republican will be nominated to lead a department that will oversee much of the vast public works programs proposed by the President-elect intended to stimulate the economy.

Jane F. Garvey, former administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and former deputy administrator and then acting administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, was long suspected as President-elect Obama’s top choice for the position has she was appointed to his transition team for transportation.

Previously, Garvey also supervised the Big Dig infrastructure project in Boston, which ballooned in cost to nearly $20 billion over budget.

Current Chair of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Rep. Jim Oberstar, Democrat of Minnesota, was also considered for the secretary position but indicated he was unwilling to take the position as the impending Transportation Bill his committee will hear in the coming legislative session will shape transportation funding in America for the next six years.

In the end, President-elect Obama chose Rep. LaHood, a fellow Illinois politician and friend of Rahm Emanuel, the new White House chief of staff.

The New York Times reports, “As a veteran of the Appropriations Committee, Mr. LaHood embraced federal spending as a way to spur economic growth, an approach the Obama administration will be following. In the House he has been closely involved in efforts to improve the Illinois transportation network, securing money for major highway construction and airport expansion. Early in his career, he was chief planner for a regional agency that dealt with transit and housing issues for a five-county area along the Illinois-Iowa border.”

Recently, Rep. LaHood has voted in favor of many pieces of transportation legislation – the passenger rail investment act, the saving energy through public transportation act, and the renewable energy job creation act – in opposition to his own party.

Rep. LaHood, who is retiring after seven terms in Congress, is known for his bipartisanship and moderate views. He will be the second Republican named to the President-elect’s cabinet, after Robert M. Gates, the defense secretary who has agreed to stay on.

Undoubtedly, the next transportation secretary will face several challenges. One is readdressing the gasoline tax, which has become an unreliable source of revenue for transportation projects as gas prices continue to greatly fluctuate and the economy remains in a recession. Recently, when gas was at $4 a gallon – stunting sales and tax revenues – the Congress had to come to the rescue of the broken Highway Trust Fund with $8 billion.

Other challenges will be updating rail and air transportation throughout the country. At the same time, the transportation secretary will also have to be conscious of whether or not certain projects will stimulate the economy. Moreover, the transportation secretary will have to balance that potential economic impact with actual infrastructure need – a project may create jobs, but that project may not be necessary.

A team of rivals

Before Mary Peters, the current transportation secretary, Norm Mineta held the position under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006. And, before Mineta was transportation secretary he served as the commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton. As President Bush made a similar pledge to President-elect Obama’s to have a bipartisan cabinet, Mineta was the President’s lone Democrat.

First Sec. Mineta and now Rep. LaHood, selecting an oposing party member as transportation secretary seemingly deemphasizes the importance of the position. However, as Rep. LaHood will oversee countless projects worth billions of dollars as a result of infrastructure stimulus spending, the role of transportation secretary will be essential in facilitating America’s economoic recovery.

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