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Transportation spending paves road to economic recovery, says LaHood

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 28, 2011 - U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood used a stop in Metro East Friday to stump for passage of federal transportation legislation, which he said would be a shot in the arm for a struggling economy.

LaHood -- a former Republican congressman from central Illinois who now heads the Department of Transportation -- was in Granite City to celebrate an $8.5 million grant of federal stimulus money for constructing a new harbor at America's Central Port. The project, known as "South Harbor," aims to provide a link for railways and highways to the Mississippi River.

During his remarks, LaHood urged passage of the so-called "Surface Transportation Bill" to provide funding for roads, highways and mass transit across the country. A temporary extension was signed earlier this year, and Congress is expected to consider the measure in the coming months.

LaHood said that bill -- or President Barack Obama's proposed "Jobs bill" -- would go a long way toward helping the economy, especially in the construction industry.

"If we want to create jobs in America, the way to do it is to have a big vision, a big plan," LaHood said. "President Obama has a big vision and a big plan and it can be incorporated into a transportation bill."

When he was in Congress, LaHood said legislators were able to pass transportation bill with huge bipartisan majorities. He pointed to how he and U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello -- a Belleville Democrat who is retiring from Congress in 2013 -- worked together to pass legislation.

"My point is, transportation has always been bipartisan," said LaHood. "There are no Republican or Democratic roads. There are no Republican or Democratic bridges. There are no Republican or Democratic ports. These are America's infrastructure projects built by American workers.

"And when we have a very tough economy like we have, the best way to put friends and neighbors to work ... is for Congress to pass a surface transportation bill or the president's jobs bill -- one or the other," LaHood added.

LaHood also spent part of his speech defending the federal stimulus bill, which provided the money for the South Harbor project through the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Program. Roughly $6 million worth of TIGER grants were awarded in 2010 to construct a rail loop and relief wells for the South Harbor project.

"For all those over the last two and a half years who said the stimulus did not work, that's baloney," LaHood said. "We're celebrating today the stimulus [working]. This is part of the stimulus money. This part of what has created jobs in America."

From light rail to China Hub

Talking with reporters after his speech, LaHood had kind words for Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon on their advocacy for high-speed rail between St. Louis to Chicago. That money became available after Florida rejected the money, allowing states such as Illinois to reap the benefits.

"Both governors have been extraordinary," said LaHood, referring to both Democratic chief executives. "They really have. We're grateful for their leadership on high speed rail."

The plan, LaHood said, is to connect Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis. After that, the rail would continue westward to Kansas City. LaHood said Illinois has received the second largest amount of money for high-speed rail, a fact that he attributed to Quinn's "leadership" and willingness to improve rail equipment.

Costello, meanwhile, said he's been monitoring the debate over incentives to establish a "China hub" at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. That effort failed when House and Senate Republicans couldn't reach consensus on broader economic development legislation.

But Costello said such failure of the incentives isn't necessarily a good thing for southern Illinois. The Beacon reported in late 2010 that Mid-America St. Louis Airport in Mascoutah was trying to lure international trade to its location.

Costello said the two airports should look at each other as partners, not necessarily rivals.

"I always look at projects in terms of what's best for the region, as opposed to what's best for Illinois or what's best for Missouri," Costello said. "I would like to see Missouri officials and officials from Illinois work together so that Lambert International and Mid-America can work in hand in hand as opposed to competing with one another. What's good for Missouri is good for the region and what's good for Illinois is good for Missouri and the region."

Hoffman drops out

While the race to replace Costello is still shaping up, a former Illinois state representative dropped out of a congressional contest in a nearby district.

Former state Rep. Jay Hoffman decided not to run against U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Urbana, in Illinois' 13th congressional district. Instead, Hoffman said in a statement that he'll run for a state representative seat that will become vacant after Tom Holbrook's appointment to an Illinois pollution board.

"I started my career in public service as a law enforcement official in the St. Clair County state's attorney's office and this is an opportunity to continue to serve the people of my community," Hoffman said in a statement. "The Illinois House gives me the best opportunity to advocate for the issues I care about most passionately; capital construction, education, economic development. It allows me to serve the community where I grew up, and the people who I know best."

Hoffman, a Collinsville native, lost his bid for re-election last year. The newly crafted 13th District includes portions of Jerseyville, Glen Carbon and Collinsville.

Jason Rosenbaum, a freelance journalist in St. Louis, covers state government and politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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