Washington Insider
What can truckers expect from the new DOT head?

By Laura O'Neill
OOIDA government affairs counsel


It is probably not a coincidence that President Barack Obama, a self-proclaimed admirer of Abraham Lincoln, has selected a Secretary of Transportation who is also committed to celebrating the ideals of the 16th president who, among other great accomplishments, was lauded for an ability to embrace the opposition.

It is clear that President Obama and former Congressman Ray LaHood share a philosophy of working in a bipartisan manner to achieve certain goals. It is this principle that has enabled the retiring congressman to secure a seat at an otherwise predominantly Democratic table.

While most would find this philosophy admirable, let’s get to the nitty-gritty and ask what this appointment means for truckers subject to the daily regulations promulgated by the DOT.

More specifically, what can we expect from an incoming secretary with limited transportation experience who will be facing some significant issues in the next few years? That’s a good question.

Critics question how LaHood’s lack of transportation expertise will translate during a time when Congress and the administration have identified infrastructure spending as a priority not only to address the crumbling roadways, but also to create jobs and generate economic stimulus.

LaHood was a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee before accepting a position on the House Appropriations Committee. But, will he have the ability to assist Congress and the administration in identifying infrastructure needs? Also important, will he be able to advise on how to spend limited funds wisely?

Supporters answer that LaHood has a track record of identifying transportation needs in his own district and securing necessary funding – for example, the $500 million in improvements made to Interstate 74 in Illinois under his watch. Only time will tell how his experience in securing earmarks will translate to the demonstrable need for across-the-board improvements that the new secretary will face.

In addition to questions about infrastructure spending, how will the incoming secretary fare on priorities identified by OOIDA members, including Mexican trucks, speed limiters, tolling, public-private partnerships, and truck size and weight?

The new secretary supported halting the DOT’s Mexican truck pilot program, but on the other issues there simply wasn’t a significant opportunity for LaHood to express an opinion while serving in Congress.

Although supporters contend that he is a quick study, it is important to ask whether the secretary will be able to identify and address some of the more complex issues in the trucking industry right now that are desperate for federal intervention, such as inefficiencies in the supply chain, uniformity in idling regulation, and repetitive credentialing requirements? Perhaps the fact that his Political Action Committee – or PAC – has accepted contributions from various transportation unions, but that there hasn’t been a significant courtship by the ATA shows sympathy toward the working man, which may translate into trucker-friendly DOT policies.

Regardless, the DOT will play a significant role in many issues that Congress will be forced to address during this presidency.

With an upcoming highway bill in 2009 and an increasing likelihood of revisiting the gas tax issue, the secretary has an opportunity to bring conflicting parties together to accomplish some pretty sizable tasks.

Perhaps this is a job for someone who, like the president, has a certain amount of respect for the opposition; someone who has a proven track record of working in a bipartisan manner to prioritize important projects and secure funding; someone who is an appropriator, like Ray LaHood. LL