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Cabinet-elect LaHood popular among Democrats, Republicans
By Marni Pyke | In Transit

Ray LaHood


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Published: 12/21/2008 12:02 AM

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Truckers love him. Cyclists love him. Suburban Republicans and Chicago Democrats love him. Urban planners and airport administrators love him.

Who is this paragon? He's Ray LaHood, retiring Republican congressman, native of Peoria and the new U.S. Department of Transportation secretary, pending Senate confirmation.

In a news conference Friday, President-elect Obama built a case for the 65-year-old former schoolteacher, saying that after serving six years on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee "few understand infrastructure challenges better than Ray."

During his time in Congress, LaHood fought to renew aging airports, improve mass transit, invest in highways and create trails for bikers and runners, Obama said.

LaHood thanked his new Democratic boss and said it was time "to put aside partisan labels."

"We have a task before us to rebuild America. Roads and bridges play a vital role in our economy. We cannot stand by while our infrastructure crumbles."

At the end of his brief remarks, LaHood made a comment sure to endear him to every mayor and county leader who's complained about unfunded mandates and dictates from D.C.

"It's the local folks who know best their transportation needs," he said.

It's certain LaHood will be a key figure as Obama pushes through a mega-billion job stimulus package aimed at repairing bridges, highways and public schools.

Immediately after the announcement, my Inbox was jammed with e-mails singing LaHood's praises from diverse sources including the Active Transportation Alliance (formerly the Chicagoland Bicycle Federation), the Mid-West Truckers Association, U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and the Bichon Frise Club of America. (OK, not the latter.)

Of course, the big question here as our tires bump over potholes, fears of unemployment grow and fare hikes on Pace and the CTA go into effect Jan. 1 - what does LaHood's appointment mean for transportation in Illinois and the metropolitan region?

Here's a smattering of opinions.

• "We'll soon have a team of powerbrokers reminiscent of when former Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Congressman Bill Lipinski were at the height of their powers," said Joe Schweiterman of DePaul University's Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development. "LaHood understands the nuts and bolts of infrastructure."

• "He works well across both sides of the aisle," Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning Executive Director Randy Blankenhorn said. "It's always valuable to have someone who understands Illinois' problems at the top of the organization."

• Northwestern University transportation expert Aaron Gellman was optimistic about LaHood but had some advice. "He's got to understand that consensus is not a substitute for leadership," he cautioned.

• "It's great for transportation as a whole. He understands surface transportation, mass transit and airports," said O'Hare Modernization Program Executive Director Rosemarie Andolino, who's served on a number of boards with LaHood.

And what local projects could get a windfall from the new administration? Schweiterman predicts a gain for O'Hare, while Blankenhorn is hopeful CREATE, the regional program to reduce railroad congestion with grade separations and other improvements, will benefit.

It's the honeymoon period now for LaHood. Let's hope this evolves into a successful marriage.

Building blocks

The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning last week issued some guidelines for the feds to consider when enacting the massive infrastructure program.

These include: focus on metropolitan areas, rebuild already existing infrastructure so work can start quickly, fund only projects with broad regional impact and those that are of national importance.

CREATE is a perfect example of a ready-to-go construction program that will ease freight train congestion in the region and benefit the nation's railways if the Chicago area bottleneck can be fixed, Blankenhorn said.

The agency also advised the new administration to keep water and sewer systems and public transit in their sights when awarding funding and to think globally, rather than looking at each part of the transportation system in isolation, Blankenhorn said.


• Metra will offer special Family Fares Monday through Jan. 2 that allow up to three children ages 11 and under to ride free with a fare-paying adult. And for New Year's Eve revelers, the last train home on all routes is 1:15 a.m.

• If you're traveling north to Cheeseland for the holidays, the Illinois tollway has announced that construction on both directions of the Tri-State from Grand Avenue to Wisconsin is complete. Happy driving.