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I was disappointed to read that Ray LaHood will be leaving as Secretary of Transportation, partly because it's nice having one who's personally familiar with infrastructure needs in my native central Illinois, but also because transportation is a great overlooked success story of the Obama administration. Who would have guessed that a Republican in the cabinet would bring so much joy to the hearts of tree-huggers and good planning gurus?

In an excellent Huffington Post interview, LaHood talks about high speed rail, bicycles, livable communities, and everyone owning an electric car by 2025. That puts him about ten years ahead of other central Illinois Republicans.

"Look, we are behind on high-speed rail," he said. "But because of the president's vision and because of the work of those of us here at DOT, we have come a long way ... As long as President Obama is in the White House, whoever sits in this chair will have high-speed rail as one of their top priorities."
In contrast, Republican Congressmen from downstate Illinois, including Aaron Schock, John Shimkus, and Bobby Schilling rode the wave of obstruction by speaking against high speed rail and voting against the rail stimulus funds that were spent in their district. Despite their lack of help, Amtrak trains on the Chicago-St. Louis line are now going faster, and their on-time performance has improved dramatically.

Small changes with big local impacts
LaHood gave the short definition of livable communities: "If you don't want an automobile, you don't have to have one." That's a revolutionary idea in many places like my hometown (Springfield, Illinois) where it's nearly impossible to live and work if you don't own a car. Changing the focus federally at Transportation has a huge impact on how cities conduct their planning and what sort of projects are funded.

For example, an outdated focus was a problem with Springfield's community study on rail. They didn't study which location was best for passenger rail, where a multi-modal transit center could spur the most economic growth, or which spot is more pedestrian friendly. They viewed rail only in terms of how it inconveniences automobile traffic. Nothing happens overnight, but the changes LaHood made at transportation will keep nudging backward looking officials with 30 year old ideas about transportation in a new direction as they make decisions for the future.

One of Obama's best comments during the Presidential debates was that the long term solution on oil is to reduce demand. Otherwise, we can stop drilling on the Gulf Coast, but we'll just get oil from tar sands or a country with even worse environmental protections instead. That's one reason why several rounds of fuel efficiency and alternative fuel standards are so important.

As LaHood said, we're still behind on high speed rail. And, much more needs to be done to reshape our transportation infrastructure if we're going to deal with climate change. It's a long-term project that will take significant resources but create many jobs in the process. But, LaHood made significant changes to help reduce oil dependence and laid the groundwork to do more. If someone else had been President, stimulus funding for transportation could have gone toward nothing but the bottomless money pit of endless highway projects.

Serving the cynics crow
There were many pundits and bloggers on the left who criticized Obama's cabinet choices as proof that he was betraying liberals even before he was sworn into office. One of the most cited examples was keeping Bush's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates. Another was Republican Ray LaHood, who was dismissed for his ties to Peoria-based Caterpillar. Surely, that would mean a focus on highways rather than a modern, green focus on all forms for transportation, they argued.

How did that turn out? Robert Gates managed the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, advocated for major cuts in defense spending, and oversaw the withdrawal from Iraq. Ray LaHood promoted the kind of transportation policies that environmentalists and forward-looking city planners have been hoping for.

Some of the most significant progressive policies of Obama's first term were overseen by Republican cabinet members who did their best to get cooperation from others in their party. Obama's cabinet picks were not a betrayal of ideals, as the cynics speculated, but a sign of an effective leader who can use people with divergent views to work toward common goals.

Cross-posted from my blog.

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