This was truly unexpected. Names of progressive transportation visionaries such Earl Blumenauer, the congressman from Portland; and Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City’s Transportation Commissioner; had been floated for Obama’s Transportation Secretary, setting urbanists’ hearts aflutter. (The Daily Report also reported on the rumor of R. T. Rybak from Minneapolis.) But every administration needs its token member of the opposition. And Transportation is often viewed — incorrectly ‚ as an essentially non-ideological, non-partisan post, where it is safe to stash someone you do not agree with on much. So it has been widely reported that on Friday Obama will name Rep. Ray LaHood, a retiring Republican from Illinois, as his Transportation Secretary.
The initial reaction in the smart growth and transportation activists’ communities was one of bafflement rather than anger. LaHood is not known for having strong convictions, good or bad, on transportation issues. “You’ve left me totally dumbfounded. Ray LaHood?” was what Jacky Grimshaw, transportation and community development coordinator at the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, had to say when Adam Doster of Progress Illinois called her for comment.
As they look into his record, though, transportation fans are becoming cautiously optimistic. His instincts, it seems, are correct, especially for a Republican from a non-urban district. He has voted to support mass transit and trains and has broken with his party on many issues. He has supported bicycling. But when it comes to high speed rail his past opposition gives some cause for concern.
While urban policy and transportation bloggers are generally disappointed that Obama did not make a more exciting choice, they are hardly apoplectic. “He’s not bad, and I think it’s important to note the role expectations played in this choice,” wrote Ryan Avent. ‘This is not the sexiest, most visionary appointment, but perhaps that’s not what’s needed in this slot.”
Ben Adler is a journalist in New York. He is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and The New Republic.