On Topic: Former Transportation secretary on high-speed rail, Congress and Obama

The Bee’s editorial board met with Ray LaHood, who spent 14 years in Congress before joining President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009 as transportation secretary. A senior policy adviser at the international law firm DLA Piper, he stopped by to talk about high-speed rail and Congress.

What brings you to town?

I am meeting with Gov. Jerry Brown and High Speed Rail chief executive Jeff Morales. I want to thank the governor for his commitment and give him some advice about where some funding might be in the Department of Transportation. I want to talk to him about some private investors who have come to me.

When I was in Washington, I helped provide funding to the tune of $4 billion. This is the one place in America that would have true high-speed rail. It is the one place in America where there is a real commitment.

This is one of the best projects in the country right now. It is because of Gov. Brown. I know these court decisions have been a little bit of a setback. But hopefully they’ll get a good ruling in the end.

As an editorial board, we’re supportive of high-speed rail. We’re also skeptical that we’re ever going to see track laid.

That was the same skepticism that occurred in American 60 years ago when President Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. Because of the vision of Eisenhower, the commitment of Congress, the commitment of governors, we have the best interstate system in the world. Hopefully 50 years from now, a good part of the country will be connected by a lot of rail.

How do you maintain interest when the first leg will be built from Merced to Fresno?

I remember when I was in high school in Peoria, Ill., and they laid slabs of concrete. It was a part of the interstate highway system. You can’t build a rail system from San Francisco to San Diego all at one time. You have to start somewhere. Why the Central Valley? Because it is a good place to begin to build, to test the speed.

Why did Obama become enamored of high-speed rail?

He was influenced by Vice President Joe Biden who rode Amtrak from Delaware every day to Washington. I think (the president) was influenced by growing up in Chicago, where there is mass transit to get just about anywhere. He also recognized that no other administration had ever made this kind of commitment.

The vision Obama has for high-speed rail can be played out here in California. Obviously, Amtrak is never going to get 200-mile-an-hour trains. It is an old system. In Illinois, we have trains going 110 miles an hour that were once going 79 miles an hour. But in California, it’s going to be the best because it is brand new. And it goes 200 miles an hour.

What do you think of Elon Musk’s idea of Hyperloop, an electromagnetic high-speed transportation system?

I don’t know much about that.

You were elected in 1994, the Contract for America year?

I was one of three Republicans who didn’t sign the Contract for America.

So how is Congress different now?

You have 40 to 50 Republicans who came to Washington to do nothing and to vote ‘no’ on everything. They didn’t come to Washington to solve problems or move the country forward. It appears from the primaries that some of that thinking is waning. I think the government shut down affected their credibility.

Do you define yourself as a Republican?