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LaHood: White House missed highway bill chance

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says the Obama administration could have won support for a gas tax hike to restore the nation’s crumbling roads — and says he would have pushed for a national law on distracted driving if he had served a second term.

LaHood — who headed the 55,000 person department with a $77 billion budget from 2009 through early 2013 — writes of frustrations in his job in a new memoir: “Seeking Bipartisanship: My Life in Politics” being published this month by Cambria Press.

“When (Obama) took office, most everyone accepted the need for action on transportation. They knew where the bad roads were. They knew about bad bridges that needed to be fixed. They knew we suffered with outdated transit systems. But we could never figure out a way to pay for the fixes. The administration would not lobby for an increase in the gas tax when it had the votes,” LaHood said. “Failing to seize the opportunity to redo transportation in a large way was the biggest disappointment during my time in the administration... But part of being on the team is that once a decision is made, you have to go along.”

He says the administration in 2009 could have passed a six-year highway bill — one proposed by Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn, who then chaired the House Transportation Committee. He called for a six-year $500 billion plan. The White House told LaHood to oppose the plan and only back a short-term increase until the White House could settle on a longer-term plan.

“I think we could have paid for the Oberstar plan. It would have required President Obama to make an aggressive play to raise the gas tax as a first step,” LaHood said. In 2009, he noted that one option would be a vehicle miles traveled fee — only to see then-White House spokesman Robert Gibbs instantly reject it. “I did not appreciate the way Gibbs handled it. In any event, the options for funding a vigorous transportation policy never received a full hearing at the White House.”

The administration in 2011 proposed a $556 billion, six-year plan that was not approved.

Instead Congress has infused about $70 billion into the highway trust fund from the general fund over the last five years in a series of more than 30 short-term bills. The growing fuel efficiency of cars and trucks — and a gas tax that hasn’t risen since 1993 — has led to shrinking revenue to pay for road repairs.

On Thursday, the House approved a six-year $325 billion — far less than the $478 billion over six years the administration proposed earlier this year.

LaHood made distracted driving a big part of his agenda.

“If I had stayed for a second term at DOT, my goal would have been to get Congress to pass a national law to prevent distracted driving,” LaHood said.

The book does not mention major auto safety issues during his tenure including Jeep SUVs that could catch fire and sudden acceleration recalls of Toyota vehicles.

LaHood says no member of President Obama’s cabinet in the first term “cracked the inner circle” of the president. Instead, Obama relied on a close group of advisers like the first lady, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarett, Robert Gibbs and Vice President Joe Biden.

“As time passed, the president seemed to be to become more isolated, more insulated from those outside the in-group, less engaged with others,” LaHood wrote. “It is arguably one reason why commentators have accused the president of losing touch with such issues as the rollout of Obamacare midway through his second term.”