U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood joined George Washington University students Tuesday to discuss the economic importance of U.S. transportation, what the country has learned from transportation systems abroad and the challenges faced in the future. The event was hosted by the Elliott School’s International Affairs Society.
Provost Steven Lerman introduced Secretary LaHood and provided opening remarks. He spoke about transportation as a driver for economic demand.
“Countries that fail to maintain and build infrastructure generally will experience poor growth and, in some cases, decline. These are critical issues for the United States to face,” Dr. Lerman said.
Secretary LaHood took the podium and discussed his work traveling to more than 18 countries over the past four years identifying trends and best practices in the field of transportation, examining European and Asian high-speed rail systems, in particular.
“If you go to China, you will see huge rail lines being built. China will build between 80 to 100 airports this year. Every one of these kinds of infrastructures creates jobs, economic opportunities and economic development,” he said.
Achievements in transportation during President Obama’s administration include the development of gasoline standards for cars and a $12 billion investment to jump-start opportunities for high-speed rails. Still, Secretary LaHood noted, more work remains to be done—and the challenge will lie in finding funds for new infrastructure and maintenance. Secretary LaHood explained that the Highway Trust Fund, which paid for transportation projects for the last 50 years, now faces deficit.
“The big debate in America is not about what we need to do, but how we pay for it. That debate will involve some of you who go into transportation,” Secretary LaHood told students.
A question-and-answer session followed, moderated by Henry Hertzfeld, professor of space policy and international affairs. Dr. Hertzfeld started the conversation by asking the process for identifying transportation priorities in local communities. Using D.C.’s investment in the Capital Bikeshare program, Mr. LaHood explained the process starts with regional planning organizations and city officials who know a city’s transportation needs best. He also emphasized the importance of strong leadership both regionally and federally to achieve improvements in transportation.
Students posed questions related to international affairs, among them how to ease the transportation of goods from Asian Pacific countries and how to maintain secure air traffic. Secretary LaHood discussed the U.S. government’s investment in ports to facilitate exchanges with Asian countries, new Open Skies Agreements to establish safety metrics in air traffic and the use of NextGen technology to guide planes worldwide.
Earlier this year, Secretary LaHood announced he would be stepping down from his post. One attendee asked what Secretary LaHood believed other countries could learn from the U.S. during his time as secretary of transportation.
“I think other countries have learned from us on road opportunities, and I think they’re also looking at what we’ve been doing the last four years in sustainable communities. There’s been some trade-offs where we’ve learned from them and they’ve learned from us. We’ve looked at their good practices, and they’ve looked at some of ours,” Secretary LaHood said.
Junior and Chairman of the International Affairs Society Gordon Gebert, who met Secretary LaHood at an event for his internship with Lufthansa Group Airlines, said the discussion embodied the International Affairs Society’s goal of connecting the GW community with influential guests.
“We were very happy that the students in attendance could engage with the secretary in such an intimate setting,” Mr. Gebert said. “It was an honor to host Secretary LaHood.”