U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a high-level supporter of the Columbia River Crossing, is stepping down from his post this year.
The departure leaves President Barack Obama another Cabinet vacancy to fill at the start of his second term, but it is not expected to change a favorable federal stance on the planned $3.5 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, congressional staffers said Tuesday.
“While Secretary LaHood has certainly been a valuable supporter of the CRC, the fact is that this is an Obama administration priority and will remain so,” Matt McAlvanah, a spokesman for Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in an email. “Senator Murray is going to continue working with whoever is named to replace Secretary LaHood to ensure that it continues to receive the federal attention is deserves as a project of vital regional importance.”
Last year, the White House named the CRC as one of several transportation projects to be expedited under the president’s “We Can’t Wait” initiative. The CRC has yet to secure crucial state and federal funding for the project, which would also rebuild five miles of freeway and extend light rail from Portland into Vancouver.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also praised LaHood for his “record of making smart transportation investments that support economic growth” in a released statement. Cantwell called it an “honor” to work with LaHood on key Washington projects including the CRC.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, has been more critical of the CRC, recently calling for a retooling of the megaproject without light rail. Her office took a different view of LaHood’s departure and eventual replacement.
Herrera Beutler spokesman Casey Bowman said in an email that if the next transportation secretary asks questions about the CRC, “there’s no doubt he or she will reach a very different conclusion about the project than Secretary LaHood.”
“Considering the challenges with the current design that includes light rail, the warts should be visible even from 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C.,” Bowman said. “Jaime plans to share the facts on the current light rail design with the next secretary of transportation, with the goal of revising the project until it earns the support of Southwest Washington.”
In November, voters rejected a sales tax increase that would have helped pay for the operations cost of light rail in Vancouver.
During his four-year tenure, LaHood raised the profile of distracted driving as a national safety concern.
The former congressman from Illinois and one of only two Republicans who served in Obama’s Cabinet, LaHood also worked for more safety in the air and on the ground and pushed for improvements of roads and bridges. Under his watch, the department demanded tougher fuel efficiency requirements for automakers and took steps to address airline pilot fatigue.
Obama, who at one point served with LaHood in the Illinois congressional delegation, said they 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. And Ray has never wavered in that belief.”
LaHood, 67, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he told Obama a week after the November election that he needed to move on. But he also said he was still “conflicted” by his decision because he liked working for the president and considered it the “best job I’ve ever had in public service.”
He said he plans to remain at the department until his successor is confirmed by the Senate, which he expects in about two months.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.