EDITORIAL: In need of a fresh serving

Retaining U.S. DOT chief LaHood would be wrong move

Blog Entry February 08, 2013

Bill Wilson is the editorial director of ROADS & BRIDGES magazine and has been covering the industry since 1999. He has won seven Robert F. Boger Awards for editorial excellence, including three in 2011. He also was the creator of the Top 10, Contractor's Choice Awards and Recycling Awards platforms, as well as ROADS & BRIDGES Live.

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I reached a point where I would have drowned lime Jell-O in gravy to get me through the night.


Unfortunately, the brown, tasty sauce did not make it on the liquid-only diet list. So I was left with green goo to dine on during the hours leading up to my medical procedure. No matter how hard I tried to convince myself that my dish was roast beef, it still came up tasting like the artificial flavor of citrus.


My digestive juices were just beginning to bubble over my gelatin nutrition when I noticed CNN’s coverage of President Barack Obama’s Inauguration Day parade. Watching the first family take candid pictures from their smartphones almost took my mind off the food deprivation. Then shortly after Obama was shown doing a salsa dance to the rhythm and beats of a small band, I saw something that made my stomach churn in disappointment: Standing and looking like he was a bit light-headed (perhaps he missed a meal or two as well?) in the presidential skybox was U.S. DOT head Ray LaHood, which quickly reminded me why I turn a nose to Obama’s taste in transportation secretaries.


There has only been one of them. It’s rare to see a president savor a cabinet member; it’s even more rare to see a cabinet member willing to sit in his seat long enough to enjoy an after-dinner toothpick. Most are gone before dessert, the stress of the main meal leaving their nerves in knots. In late January, Bloomberg reported LaHood said he was going to head the nation’s transportation department for a little while longer, at least until another DOT head can be named.


LaHood’s service to the transportation network has been malnourished, and the next two years is going to determine whether or not this industry—at least at the federal level—is going to punch its own meal ticket or lead tens of thousands of construction workers to the soup line. President Obama has called for a six-year, $556 billion bill, yet LaHood and his agency have yet to produce anything from their kitchen that smells anything close to the necessary funding mechanism. In addition, Congress left a lot of blanks in the bill, a stark contrast to the specific language in ISTEA, TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU. One of the better items that MAP-21 offers is holding states to performance criteria regarding their road and bridge network. However, it is going to be up to the U.S. DOT to come up with these numbers, as well as other specifics related to program reform. What we need here is a clean plate and a heavy helping of foresight. Obama went out on a limb when he picked LaHood. This was a guy already contemplating retirement, and his transportation intelligence amounted to a hill of beans. To be fair, LaHood, in a broad sense, did learn his role well, but it did not amount to much in the road and bridge construction market.


States like Virginia and Pennsylvania now seem eager to stuff themselves with innovation in regards to funding reform. Va. Gov. Bob McDonnell has announced a plan to eliminate the state gas tax in favor of a sales-tax increase. It’s all part of a five-year, $3.1 billion plan to upgrade the road, bridge and transit situation in the state. Meanwhile, Pa. Gov. Tom Corbett has aspirations of generating $2 billion a year in new taxes on gas stations. The plan would involve removing a statutory cap on the oil company franchise tax.


Of course, both ideas have to make it through each state’s general assembly—meaning in the end they could amount to a big plate of brussel sprouts. But it’s great to see the shift in mindset at the state and local level.


The new transportation secretary must have some type of prior DOT experience. Otherwise I’ll find myself once again attempting to drown my sorrows, but at least I’ll be able to do it with gravy. R&B

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