Aspen Institute

Despite being a proponent of walkable communities, the outgoing U.S. Secretary of Transportation just doesn't believe Americans will ever stop buying cars.

Twelve years. That's how long (or really, how short) it will take for the vast majority of the United States to transition to driving hybrid or electric cars, according to outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

"By 2025, all of us, every family, will have some kind of hybrid or electric vehicle," LaHood, who left office just a few days ago following the confirmation of his successor, told an audience Sunday at the Aspen Ideas Festival. "That’s just the way the car manufacturers are going since we've set [fuel economy] standards at 54.5 mpg. It's all going to be hybrids or battery powered."

And here's another timeframe: 25 years. That's how long LaHood predicts it will take to get 80 percent of the U.S. connected by good, fast passenger rail.

"We owe it to the next generation to build the next generation of transportation, and that's high-speed rail," said LaHood, comparing the project of expanding America's rail network to the 50 years it took to complete the Interstate Highway System.

It's a bit of an unusual juxtaposition to make for the Republican cabinet member, who has become an unexpected hero for proponents of multi-modal transportation priorities and walkable communities. Just think back to 2010, when he memorably jumped up on a table at the National Bike Summit and proclaimed that national policy would no longer "favor motorized transportation at the expense of nonmotorized." On the one hand, he remains steadfast that despite extraordinary funding challenges, the future of American transportation lies with rail. On the other, he remains skeptical that Americans will ever really be willing to give up their cars, hybrid or not.

As he exits the Obama administration, LaHood sat down with The Atlantic Cities to expand on his vision of where America's transportation future is really heading.

Cities: You've seemed hesitant to commit to the idea that the federal transportation funding model should move away from the gas tax, despite its dwindling revenues.

LaHood: I don't think we should move away from it. The gas tax has been around forever, it funded the interstates. The trouble is that it's just been diminished because people are driving less and driving fewer cars. So Congress has to decide, if they want to continue to use the gas tax, they're not going to be able to do all the things that need to get done without raising it, and the debate has to be, do we want to continue or are we going to think of other funding sources?

But if we shouldn't move away from it, and let's say Congress actually got it together and voted to raise the gas tax, doesn't that set up a situation where it would need to be raised over and over again, as fuel economy improves and assuming Millennials continue to drive less than previous generations?

No, what they need to do if they raise it is index it to the cost of living. When the gas tax was raised in '93, and half of it was put to deficit [reduction] and half of it was put to infrastructure, if they would have indexed it, that means it would have gone up every year according to the consumer price index. Or tie it to something like that. Then we wouldn't even be talking about raising it. Because it would have reached the levels that are needed. So it's not just raising it.

So you don't imagine a future where people are just driving so little that it wouldn't even be enough to tie it to inflation?

Well, no. People are always going to have their cars. But they're also going to be driving cars that get a lot better gas mileage. They're not going to be buying much gasoline. In some instances they're not going to be buying any gasoline because they're going to be driving completely battery powered cars. But if part of the formula for funding transportation is the gas tax, then the debate has to be about, do we raise it, how much, and should we index it?

So you don't think that there's any role for the government to play in encouraging or enabling people to rely less on cars, or even go car-free?

Well I mean, that's not going to happen.

You don't think so?

Well no, not with the kind of automobile industry that we have, and the fact that people love cars. People of your generation, my kids' generation, they're probably going to have at least one car. But yes, a lot of communities like Chicago, L.A., they're going to alternatives, and some people are even going to the Zipcar and such, but there are always going to be automobiles. People are always going to have at least one car.

One of the things that we write about a lot at Atlantic Cities is that there appears to be a new attitude emerging, especially among younger people, that car ownership is less important than it used to be.

I don't envision most people living car-free. Because people like cars. That's not going to change for a long time, as long as the car manufacturers continue to make new cars. And until we get high-speed rail, how are you going to get, on a regular basis, from point a to point b until we get more passenger rail?

But you've also predicted that 25 years from now, 80 percent of the United States will be connected by rail.

That's the plan.

Twenty-five years isn't that long from now.

No, I know it's not. And it's a good plan. It's the president's plan. That's the kind of vision that Eisenhower had about the interstates. And we've gone through a lot of presidents and a lot of Congresses and a lot of governors, and we built the interstates. I hope we continue to have people of vision that will carry out this idea that the country will be connected [by rail].

You haven't minced words in your criticisms of the current Congress and its inability to pass a comprehensive transportation bill. You called the last bill that they passed, which was only a two-year funding measure, "chintzy." Do you think it's going to take a while before this Congress is able to get serious about transportation?

We'll see. There's a new chairman of the transportation committee and he's working very hard to try to forge a bipartisan opportunity. We'll see how successful he is.

Have you become cynical about the possibilities of bipartisanship?

I think the immigration bill is a good signal that when people work together they can do big things. I'm not that optimistic about the House, but we'll see.

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