U.S. Sec. of Transportation Ray LaHood turned transportation policy on its head with a declaration that pedestrians and cyclists should be treated as equals with drivers. That means federal dollars for more projects geared toward walking and cycling.
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NEAL CONAN, host:
In March, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood drew both praise and derision when he declared that from now on, bicyclists and pedestrians would get the same priority as cars and trucks. Much of the latter from the trucking industry. Then came news this week that four House Republicans signed on with Democrats to a letter that lauds the policy change. If you'd like to talk with Secretary LaHood about transportation priorities, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Secretary Ray LaHood joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.
Secretary RAY LaHOOD (Department of Transportation): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And what does it mea, to give pedestrians and bicyclists the same priority as cars?
Sec. LaHOOD: I think what you see here in Washington, D.C., as you tool down Pennsylvania Avenue. They've put all-new bike lanes in there. Go up on 14th Street in D.C., where they've put bike lanes in. What it means is that communities decide that there are lots of people who want to bike on streets. In order to make it safe, you paint a lane down the street and make sure that it can be safe and - so that people then begin to pay attention to these bicyclists.
And then you also have a number of communities around the country that are turning old railroad lines into what we call Rails-to-Trails. People are looking for biking paths and walking paths, and paths where they can be with their families on the weekend and enjoy the great outdoors. These paths really become an opportunity, almost like a nature walk in some instances.
So all of these opportunities we have been highlighting at DOT because we have some money for streets, and we have some money for rail. And we have decided that in order to really promote our livable and sustainable communities, the way to do it is - we know we're always going to have streets for people to drive on, but we know that people want to bike and hike and walk. And we want to provide those opportunities for the exercise it provides, for the family opportunities for people to be together, to get outdoors, and so many other things that come about as a result of it.
CONAN: And I wanted to ask, what do you make of the criticism - I'm sure you've read it - from the trucking industry?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look at - we're always - we have to have trucks in order to get groceries to these stores that we go and buy our groceries, and to the CVSes, where we buy - our other things that we buy, our cosmetics and other things. We're always going to have trucks, and we're always going to have cars. My point is, there are a lot of people in America that are tired of being in congestion. There are a lot people in America that want to get outdoors. There are a lot of people in America that want opportunities. This does not diminish the trucking industry. We know people are always going to have cars, but we also have to promote the idea that people want many forms of transportation: streetcars, light rail, buses, metros, biking, hiking, walking. So they have nothing to - the trucking companies have nothing to worry about.
CONAN: Well, a lot of people - anybody who drives on America's highways knows the infrastructure needs a lot work. There's plenty of places that could use repair. Does this mean that money that might otherwise have gone towards repairing a federal highway system, to the interstates, will instead be diverted to bike paths?
Sec. LaHOOD: What it means is that some of the resources that we have at DOT will be used for many different modes of transportation. Some of it will be to build new highways, to fix up the current highways we have, to build new bridges, to fix up the bridges we have. But also, some of the money will go for streetcars, which a lot of communities want.
CONAN: More money than would have gone to this earlier - money that would, in other words, have gone to the highways?
Sec. LaHOOD: There will be resources for us to promote bike paths, walking paths, streetscapes so that we can paint these bike paths along streets. There's plenty of money for all of this.
CONAN: Good. Let's - there's an interesting aspect of the new fuel standards for tractor trailers - of course, the mainstay of the trucking industry -were signed last week by the president. Trucking leaders seemed to be pleased with that.
Sec. LaHOOD: Yeah. Here's what the president signed. First of all, we celebrated the fact that we have reached a standard for cars and light trucks for 2012. It'll be 25, 26 miles per gallon; and for 2016, itll be 36 miles per gallon. So thats already set.
What the president talked about - in his announcement at the Rose Garden with automobile manufacturers and light truck manufacturers - is that we need to think beyond 2017. What will the standards be beyond 2017? And we are beginning to work on that, now that the president has given us direction.
CONAN: And so youre thinking about increasing the fuel standards?
Sec. LaHOOD: That - they will be increased after 2017.
CONAN: So it's a question, by how much?
Sec. LaHOOD: Thats correct. And we want to work with the automobile manufacturers, the light truck manufacturers to get to a point where they can manufacture cars that will meet these standards.
CONAN: And lets go on to a couple of other new stories that - and then we will let callers have their say, too.
Sec. LaHOOD: Sure.
CONAN: Toyota has now eight open investigations against it. Is there a mercy rule at some point? I mean, this is...
Sec. LaHOOD: Not until every Toyota is safe for people to drive. Our number one priority is safety. We dont rest until we know that every car thats driven off a showroom is the safest possible car to drive. When we get complaints from people about their automobiles, that theyre not safe, theres something wrong with them - we investigate, we look in to, we review. And when we see a pattern, then we open an investigation. And so were not going to rest until these cars are safe to drive.
CONAN: What about your the speed of your investigations? Did DOT move quickly enough to look into these allegations when they came up?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, we are moving very were not going to compromise what we need to look into, as far as safety, because of time. We will take whatever time it takes in order to make sure we do full investigations and that all these cars are safe.
CONAN: Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, with us here in Studio 3A. If you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. Well begin with Sebastian(ph) - Sebastian with us from Miami.
SEBASTIAN (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?
CONAN: Im good, thanks.
SEBASTIAN: In Miami, I've noticed lately that theres been a lot of bicycle lanes opening up, which is a wonderful thing. I ride a lot of bike, I have a lot of friends who do. But theres not enough driver awareness of the fact that were allowed to share the roads, that its legal to use the roads on a bicycle. I was just wondering if there's anywhere else in the country where there's any - like, any kind of programs that are being implemented to the DOT to help new drivers learn the rules of sharing the road with bicycles. And I think there should be a national program that should help all the drivers -truck drivers, motorcycle drivers, car drivers, any driver - to become aware of the laws of bicycles. And even for bicycles, there should be, you know, even just commercials to help them understand the laws of the road.
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look, you make a very good point. And we have lots of safety programs. We have Click It or Ticket, which we've just begun again this year with the opening up of the summer driving season. We really gotten on the distracted driving campaign, to get cell phones and BlackBerrys out of peoples hands while theyre driving. We have a very strong drunk driving campaign.
SEBASTIAN: Well, one point I want to make is that I recently (unintelligible)...
CONAN: Sebastian, why dont you give him a chance to answer?
SEBASTIAN: OK, Sorry.
>Sec. LaHOOD: OK. But - no, my - your point is well taken. We need to make sure that people that are driving cars know that pedestrians and bicyclists have the right of way. That - in most states, that is the law. And so, you know, I take your point on this, and I really think we need to step up because cycling is becoming so popular, and these bike lanes are becoming so popular -particularly on city streets - we need to make sure that people do understand the laws, that cyclists and pedestrians have the right of way. And so I take your point on this, and we'll try and to come up with some ideas.
SEBASTIAN: OK. Thank you very much.
CONAN: All right, thanks very much. There was an idea suggested - we did a show on this last week - and somebody said, wait a minute. On the written test, couldnt you have some provision that the states have to require some question on the written test that says, are you aware of pedestrians and bicyclists -and for that matter, motorcycles were also in the same category.
Sec. LaHOOD: Its a good point. And as were working with driver education programs on distracted driving, we should do the same for bicyclists and pedestrians.
CONAN: Lets get another caller in. Lets go to Kevin(ph), Kevin with us from Truro in Massachusetts.
KEVIN (Caller): Hi. Im calling about a project that were working on. Were a small company that specializes in transportation databases, a small software company. Now, we're working on a project called efficient vehicle assessor, which is in its very early stages. But basically what it does is, it's tied to the gas tax. And the secretary has been on the news, talking about replacing the gas tax with a mileage tax because, you know, gas tax revenues are declining. And what this does is allow the - at the pump, the tax to be variable, to be based on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. It can be based on miles traveled but also can do things like collect over $2 billion, excuse me, in delinquent parking fine that are awarded to communities. That's new revenue. It could enforce the insurance requirements. It could stop stolen vehicles, that sort of thing. It's basically turning the pump into a tool for transportation policy.
Sec. LaHOOD: And I was wondering if the secretary had any thoughts on that?
KEVIN: My thought is I'd like to see the kind of work that youre doing, and if you could email us at DOT.gov and click onto the secretary's - I have blog also, but - or if you just wanted to call my office. Id like to see the work that youre doing and look into it a little more.
KEVIN: OK, Ill do that. Ill forward that to your office.
CONAN: All right.
Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Kevin, thanks very much for the call. Here's an email from Joe(ph) in Minneapolis. What about public transit riders? Can busing be subsidized to promote more public transit use? Here in Minneapolis, our buses and light rail services incorporate excellent bike attachments, so people can bike to the bus stops and bus to their destinations. Can this innovation be spread out to other cities through the nation, through federal subsidies?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, the transit districts all over the country do get a federal subsidy. Under the economic recovery plan, we just put out $8 billion around the country. We have many programs through the transit administration to help transit companies. Part of their resources come from us; part of it comes from the fares that they charge. And we take seriously our responsibility to make sure that transit districts around the country have the kind of resources they need - either to buy new buses, to put up bus shelters, or to make sure that they have the operating capital to keep their systems going.
CONAN: We're talking with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, here with us in Studio 3A. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Hank(ph), Hank with us from Oakland in California.
HANK (Caller): Well, hi. I have been following this for awhile. I'm a bicycle commuter, but I'm also a taxpayer and so the roads, you know, I don't drive a car very often, the roads belong to me. But I wanted to ask the secretary if he would consider promoting this idea that's called the Idaho stop, which is that stop signs equally yield for bicycles - not red lights - but stops signs; that's legal in Idaho. Could you comment on that?
Sec. LaHOOD: You know, I don't know enough about it to really comment on it, but I will look into it. It sounds like a pretty innovative approach. And I don't know enough to really speak intelligently about it, but I'll check it out.
HANK: All right. Thank you. There's another thing I wanted to find out. Did you suggest that every mile of roadway include these kind of things for pedestrians and bicycles - and also people in wheelchairs and pushing baby carriages and stuff?
Sec. LaHOOD: Did I suggest that?
HANK: Well, I thought I heard from the White House, or from secretary of transportation - perhaps it was not you, but it was that...
CONAN: That other secretary of transportation.
HANK: Yeah - that every mile of roadway include these type of...
Sec. LaHOOD: No, I've never suggested that.
HANK: Would you consider it?
Sec. LaHOOD: You know, I think it would be a little silly to think that we're going to paint every roadway in America and make them accessible to bikes. I don't - that's not really used in very good common sense, I don't think. At this point, what we want to do is let communities decide where their people want to ride bikes. That shouldn't be dictated by the Federal Department of Transportation.
I mean, I like what Washington, D.C., is doing. I like what other communities -they're picking the streets, they're deciding, based on what, I think, cyclist organizations in their communities have told them where they want to cycle.
HANK: Well, how about every dollar being earmarked with it, you know, a nickel for improvement?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, we'll have to, you know - Congress will decide where the tax dollars go when it comes to transportation.
HANK: All right. Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Hank, appreciate it.
Indeed, now, the city of Washington also experimenting with different kinds of...
Sec. LaHOOD: Right.
CONAN: Stopping traffic four ways to let people walk across those...
Sec. LaHOOD: Exactly.
CONAN: ...busy intersections - here in Chinatown, for example.
Sec. LaHOOD: Right. Right. Exactly.
CONAN: So there's all kinds of things - but these are things, clearly, that have to be decided by local government.
Sec. LaHOOD: Absolutely. Absolutely. It has to be decided by local elected officials and local advocacy groups that are promoting these kinds of activities.
CONAN: Let's see if we get one more caller in. Let's go to Megan(ph), Megan with us from Browns Mills in New Jersey.
MEGAN (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. And I appreciate the Rails-to-Trails project. Our family uses that frequently in our community.
Sec. LaHOOD: Great.
MEGAN: My question for you is, well, I've read studies recently that simply retiming traffic lights can lead to - fuel savings and relieve congestion throughout communities and municipalities. And if there would be any initiative from the federal government to encourage the municipalities to take this very simple step in reducing fuel consumption.
SSec. LaHOOD: Well, we haven't done that to date but it's something, obviously, we could look in to. Again, we need to really hear from the communities if this is the way they think they can make the best use of, you know, trying to make their communities more environmentally sustainable. I don't know about the idea of really pushing this down from the top but, you know, if we have communities that are doing this and it works, it's certainly worth having the information and making it available.
MEGAN: Thank you very much. I appreciate the answer.
Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Megan. We also heard - in that show we did - that Amsterdam, where, of course, there are many more bicycles - nice and flat, too, - but that they time their traffic lights to the speed of a bicycle, and not to the speed of the car.
Sec. LaHOOD: Oh, OK.
CONAN: So that...
Sec. LaHOOD: Yeah.
CONAN: ...everybody keeps rolling (unintelligible).
Sec. LaHOOD: Right. Right. Yeah. Yeah.
CONAN: One more question - the status of Connecticut's high-speed rail?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, we just had a very good meeting up in Connecticut. Senator Dodd arranged a meeting with the congressional delegation. The governor was there. Connecticut will get in to the high-speed rail business. They're positioned to do it. They know what they want to do. I believe you'll see some significant dollars heading that direction this year.
CONAN: And do you think that there's going to be long-term projects that we've heard so much about, in terms of the Northeast Corridor and indeed, out in California, too?
Sec. LaHOOD: Absolutely. I think that the Northeast Corridor will be expanded north, all the way to the Canadian border. And I think you'll see it go south through the Carolinas all the way to Florida and then, obviously, west. In the next decade or two, America will be connected by high-speed, innercity rail. It just will. There's a commitment from President Obama, Vice President Biden, Ray LaHood, DOT, and a lot of rail enthusiast around the country.
CONAN: Secretary LaHood, thank you for your time today.
Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: We appreciate it.
Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, joined us here in Studio 3A.
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I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.