Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced Tuesday that he is resigning his post, but will stay on the job until a successor is confirmed.
LaHood is a Republican and former congressman from Illinois who joined Democrat President Barack Obama’s administration almost four years ago.
"I've told President Obama, and I've told many of you, this is the best job I've ever had," LaHood said in an e-mail to Department of Transportation employees that was posted online.
During his tenure, DOT quickly distributed $48 billion dollars from the 2009 stimulus plan for so-called "shovel-ready" road infrastructure improvements, created the popular TIGER grant program for multi-modal projects, and helped craft a two-year surface transportation bill last year.
LaHood always said safety was his top priority.
He probably is best known by the public at large for pushing DOT's distracted driving initiative to get people to stop texting and using cell phones behind the wheel. DOT held two national summits on the subject, banned texting and cell phone use for commercial drivers, encouraged states to adopt tough laws and launched several public awareness campaigns about the dangers of distracted driving.
Under his watch, the Federal Aviation Administration implemented a rule to combat pilot fatigue by increasing to nine hours the rest period before flying, adding weekly and monthly duty limits and standardizing the rule across all types of flights. DOT has issued many safety regulations for transit systems, pipelines and highways and took an aggressive approach to protecting consumer rights in the bus, truck and airline industries.
LaHood was also the point man for the administration's creation of a controversial high-speed passenger rail program that was kick-started with $10 billion from the 2009 American Recovery Act designed to lift the nation out of recession. And DOT advanced new fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and heavy-duty trucks.
In the past year, Congress has passed a long-delayed reauthorization bill for the FAA, which includes funding for the NextGen air traffic control system that is expected to improve safety and reduce flight delays, and a two-year, $105 billion surface transportation bill that maintains funding for roads, bridges and transit systems.
The TIGER program and congressional passage of the surface transportation reauthorization, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21), are two areas where LaHood should get more credit, Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank, said in an interview.
TIGER was an unprecedented program to deliver infrastructure money to creative, multi-modal, multi-regional projects that could produce tangible safety or economic outcomes rather than spread money evenly to states based on traditional formulas, and was therefore challenging to administer, he said.
The program is generally viewed as a success considering that Congress has authorized four rounds of funding and grantees are happy with the competitive approach, Schank said.
"It was an attempt to distribute money where the most cost-effective investments were, especially for intermodal projects. They had to pull people from all across the department under intense scrutiny from Congress. It's impressive they were able to pull it off," he said.
LaHood and DOT also had a strong influence behind the scenes in getting MAP-21 passed, even though the administration didn't publish its version of a reauthorization bill. Schank said MAP-21, while not addressing long-term funding issues facing the Highway Trust Fund, did move the nation closer to a performance-based funding scheme and consolidated disparate programs to improve oversight.
The High-Speed Passenger Rail Program became politicized after Republican budget hawks complained about it and several Republican governors turned down federal money for rail projects because of concerns their states would be on the hook for further expenditures. Schank pointed out that the idea for the program came straight from President Obama and executing it was a challenge because the Federal Railroad Administration traditionally has been a safety and regulatory agency, not a grant-making body. It's possible the program could have been run through the transportation secretary's office, but officials there were busy running the new TIGER program, he added.
"If it had been structured a little bit differently, either by Congress or the DOT, it might have been more successful," the Eno chief said.
Schank recommended the administration select someone with strong transportation credentials - either someone who has run a state transportation department, railroad or some other related agency - to succeed LaHood because an individual with that type of background is more likely to have thought through creative ways to fund and finance infrastructure improvements, which the nation has largely ignored during the past quarter century.
But the White House will probably pick a former elected official who can diversify the cabinet. Administrations in the past have typically named women, minorities or opposition party members to lead DOT, and the Obama administration has a track record of picking former politicians to head departments.
Many special interest groups praised LaHood's work.
“Secretary LaHood brought passion, energy and a deep commitment to safety to his work at the Department of Transportation. Under his leadership, railroads have never been safer. In addition, he understood the importance of freight rail to our nation’s economic vitality. We thank him for a job well done," the American Association of Railroads, which has fought the mandate for positive train control technology, said in a statement.
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials noted LaHood helped cut highway fatalities by about 5,000 deaths per year, made distracted driving a national priority and helped states create thousands of jobs through investments in roads, bridges, transit and rail projects.
"Secretary LaHood has been a forceful advocate for a safe and modern transportation system. He oversaw a historic... transportation economic stimulus program that created or saved hundreds of thousands of jobs. He sent a clear message that our economic recovery will stall if we failed to repair, upgrade and expand our battered transportation infrastructure and boost domestic transportation manufacturing. And he implemented major policy initiatives that will spur innovation and save lives," Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO labor union, said.
LaHood "always sought our views and collaborated with us. His door is always open whether you are a Republican or Democratic, or if you advocate for labor or management. That is a rare quality seen today in Washington. His greatest legacy may actually turn out to be his ability to put passion and principle over politics," Wytkind added. - Eric Kulisch