Ray LaHood Stepping Down as Obama’s Transportation Chief

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, one of two Republicans to serve in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, said he is stepping down.

LaHood, 67, announced his plan in a meeting with top staff members at the Transportation Department’s headquarters in Washington, saying he’ll stay for a few months until a successor is confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

“As I look back on the past four years, I am proud of what we have accomplished together in so many important areas,” LaHood said today in an e-mailed statement.

The former Illinois representative’s future had been unclear as Obama assembles other Cabinet members for his second term. LaHood said at a Jan. 21 party following Obama’s inauguration that he would be “sticking around for a while,” without specifying how long.

“Years ago, we were drawn together by a shared belief that those of us in public service owe an allegiance not to party or faction, but to the people we were elected to represent,” Obama, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, said in an e-mailed statement. “And Ray has never wavered in that belief.”

During his tenure, LaHood made distracted driving a centerpiece issue. He brought attention to dangers caused by texting and driving while shying away in recent years from criticizing infotainment systems installed in cars.

LaHood didn’t talk about who may replace him, according to people familiar with the staff meeting.

Distracted Driving

LaHood will be remembered for his handling of a huge infusion of cash for transportation projects from Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus package and for his campaign against driving while distracted, said Joshua Schank, president and chief executive officer of the Eno Center for Transportation, a research institute based in Washington.

John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, credited LaHood for the campaign on safe driving.

“Distracted driving is a national priority today because of his personal zeal,” Horsley said in an e-mailed statement.

Cabinet Diversity

Los Angeles Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman are among people who have been cited by industry groups and in published reports as potential replacements. At a Jan. 14 news conference, Obama defended his record of appointing women and minorities, responding to critics after selecting white men to fill vacancies at the Treasury, State and Defense departments.

Hersman, 42, is leading a probe of the Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner plane, which was grounded following two incidents this month involving fire or smoke from the aircraft’s lithium-ion batteries. She toured the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this month after upsetting automakers in late 2011 by saying no phone calls should be made while driving.

Villaraigosa, 60, has been an advocate for California’s high-speed rail project. He traveled to Washington this month to give a speech at the National Press Club about immigration reform and to celebrate Obama’s inauguration.

A secretary in Villaraigosa’s office referred questions about a possible nomination to the White House.

Transportation Budget

LaHood could depart during the department’s budgeting process following Obama’s scheduled Feb. 5 release of a spending plan for the 2014 fiscal year. Typically, Cabinet secretaries represent their agencies at hearings in the House and Senate as they push for their departments to get funding.

This month, LaHood expressed confidence in the Dreamliner as little as two days before his department’s Federal Aviation Administration grounded the fleet. In 2010, he said at a House Appropriations panel hearing that owners should “stop driving” recalled Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles and take them to a dealer, sending Toyota’s American depositary receipts to a 10-month intraday low. At the hearing’s close, about two hours later, he backed off the statement, saying he’d overreached.

LaHood has been the president’s principal advocate for increased spending on highways, bridges and transportation facilities that Obama says are needed to heal the U.S. economy. Obama’s efforts to expand U.S. high-speed passenger rail service has been stalled by Congress’s refusal to keep paying for it.

Infrastructure Spending

LaHood will leave unfinished the implementation of high-speed rail in the U.S. and unanswered the question of how to fund highway and transit spending in the future, as gasoline tax revenues decrease relative to spending needs for surface transportation.

He has yet to issue promised guidelines for automakers on distracted driving or a $2.7 billion rule that would require backup cameras in all new cars. The FAA is due to issue two rules on pilot training and qualification that were mandated by Congress and is supposed to decide how to regulate drone flights in U.S. civilian airspace.

The department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is due to issue a proposed rule requiring electronic on-board recorders to track commercial truck drivers’ on-duty time after a 2010 version of the regulation was thrown out by a U.S. appeals court. The rule may cost the trucking industry more than $1 billion.

LaHood served seven terms as a U.S. representative from Peoria, Illinois. From 2005 through 2009 he worked with Obama, then a U.S. senator, in the state’s congressional delegation. He is the only Republican currently in Obama’s Cabinet.

Former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has been nominated to lead the Pentagon. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who left that post in 2011, joined LaHood as the second Republican in Obama’s initial Cabinet.

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