“But the idea that we changed that we deal with transit systems is a recognition that we know it’s a tough economy; we know that ridership is down; we know that many transit systems still have administrative costs and also a cost for their equipment.”
Transit operators have been very helpful working with their mayors and communities, LaHood believes. With the high price of gasoline and the high unemployment, people are looking to transit as a means of transportation that’s affordable and the transit industry has made their members of Congress and their senators aware of the importance of public transportation.
“It can’t be all just on the president and all on us here at the DOT,” says LaHood. “It has to come from the grassroots.”
Another thing he wants to continue working on with transit systems is safety. And, he said they’re trying to persuade Congress to reintroduce the Transit Safety Bill. “We want to work on safety and we’ve talked about safety since a couple of crashes occurred a few years ago,” LaHood says. “We believe it’s very important that we have some say in the safety of transit systems around America and we haven’t had that kind of jurisdiction before.
Regarding high-speed rail, “We’ve got tracks that need to be laid and trains that need to be manufactured in America; we’ve got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the heavy lifting right now,” is the message LaHood delivered to the attendees of the USHSR conference.
“We’ve made a lot of progress; we’ve invested hard-earned tax dollars and the idea that these dollars are not well spent is absolutely nonsense.” He continued, “We are making an America where 80 percent of the people have access to high-speed rail.
“We know that as this system emerges, economic growth andopportunity will follow. Every one of these corridors is an economic engine for communities that they run through, the jobs that they create; we know that every rail is an economic corridor.”
To date, LaHood said, there are 30 rail companies from around the world that have pledged that if selected for high-speed rail contracts, would hire American workers and expand their base of operation in the United States, partnering with American companies.
“We know America will be home to a hundred million additional people by the year 2050. That’s the equivalent of another California, Texas, New York and Florida – combined,” stressed LaHood. “Our highways and airports simply can’t handle the growth. We need to do something or we’ll be crushed by the weight of our own expansion.”
Congress has always found a way to make sure that transportation is bipartisan and found a way to pay for it, LaHood says. “There are no Democratic or Republican roads or bridges.”
He talked to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker when he was first elected and LaHood says, “He told me he didn’t want high-speed rail money and that showed me where his commitment was for transportation and high-speed rail.
“There were a lot of disappointed people in Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio that have worked long and hard on transportation, particularly on transit and particularly on high-speed rail.” LaHood says, “It’s up to them; we will work with anybody that wants to get something done.”
He also says, on the day Florida Governor Rick Scott said he was not going to accept $2.3 billion, there were nine foreign companies in his state ready for him to agree to use them to help; they wanted to invest.
“I just arranged for Governor Brown to meet with representatives from China and Japan to talk about what they might be able to do to invest,” LaHood says. “There are companies in America – in Illinois, in the Northeast Corridor, in California – that will be partnering with these states for their high-speed rail plans. It’s happening.
“We believe in public-private partnerships. There are a lot of companies out there that want to invest in America, want to leverage some of their money against some of our money.”
LaHood acknowledges it’s a very difficult time right now. However, he says, “People have to set aside politics, think about policy, think about good policy, think about getting our friends and neighbors to work.