by Sandi Burtseva
In an address to NLC members during a the Congressional City Conference in Washington, D.C., U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood spoke about the need for Congress to pass transportation legislation in order to address the challenges that leaders across the country are facing in trying to maintain and develop local transportation infrastructure.
"America is one big pothole," LaHood said, underscoring the urgency with which the nation needs a transportation bill. The current legislation, he explained, is now more than eight years old and more than three years past its intended life. LaHood expressed optimism about the Senate bill, which he believed would be passed within the week. (The Senate has now passed that bill. Please see story on page 1.) He emphasized the importance of the bipartisan bill, which is "how you get things done." LaHood pointed out that Senators James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) were able to get the bill out of committee with unanimous approval - not a common occurrence and one, the secretary indicated, that speaks to the bill's strength.
Secretary LaHood encouraged members of the House to either adopt the Senate's bill or begin crafting another, equally bipartisan piece of legislation that would reflect the values of the nation's communities. The previous House transportation bill had lacked the bipartisan strength of the Senate's legislation, he explained, pointing out that the proposed House bill had not allocated sufficient funds to finance public transportation. LaHood noted that, as gas prices rise, so will demand for and reliance on public transportation across the country. A bill that does not budget for that reality will not adequately address the nation's needs.
LaHood spoke about the importance of national leadership being partnered with and listening to local governments and communities from across the country. He encouraged NLC members to push their congressional representatives on passing forward-looking, bipartisan transportation legislation, noting that local leaders are ahead of Washington on this issue.
"Congress passes the transportation bill, America goes to work," LaHood said, acknowledging that transportation legislation is not only integral to updating roads and bridges and building up public transport, but will also create jobs in a time when many cities continue to struggle with high unemployment rates. When Congress passes a transportation bill, work opportunities will increase, and community life will improve, he explained.
LaHood urged Congress to take politics out of the transportation discussion, explaining that partisanship only slows down urgently needed progress. He pointed to local elected officials and governments for models of effective bipartisan governing. He also emphasized a need for building up transportation infrastructure by collaborating with housing and sustainability initiatives, as well as developing public-private partnerships.
Beyond the transportation bill, Secretary LaHood mentioned working to reduce regulatory burdens on local governments administering federal grants. It is possible, he explained, to streamline the processes and battle bureaucracy without lowering important standards. He also discussed the Distracted Driving campaign, which addresses the role of mobile communication devices in car accidents, and identified it as top of his safety agenda, praising local governments that had already taken initiative on this issue.
"I know what good we can do when we work closely together," LaHood concluded. He pointed to TIGER grants, through which local leaders work directly with his office, as example of that effective collaboration. "I came here to say 'thank you,'" he added. He assured NLC members that the Department of Transportation was committed to continuing to be a "partner" for cities and local communities seeking to improve their transportation infrastructure.
After the secretary's speech, many NLC members returned that sentiment, thanking the secretary for his role in helping cities procure and administer TIGER grants and move forward with innovative, sustainable local transportation initiatives.