“We need a pot of money to fix our roads and bridges, but America is one big pothole." Ray LaHood, former U.S. DOT secretary.

“We need a pot of money to fix our roads and bridges, but America is one big pothole." Ray LaHood, former U.S. DOT secretary.

The Erie Canal, Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Interstate Highway System  – all were built by men of vision, but today Congress lacks enough such people to rebuild America’s worn and aging infrastructure, said Ray LaHood, himself a former congressman and the first secretary of transportation in the Obama administration.

“There are no projects like that today because there’s no vision” in Congress, charged LaHood, a Republican congressman who went to work for the Democratic administration. He spoke Wednesday night to a group of reporters and guests of Caterpillar Inc. at its Edwards Demonstration & Learning Center west of Peoria, Ill., LaHood’s home town.

“We need a pot of money to fix our roads and bridges, but America is one big pothole,” he said. “Over 3,000 bridges need to be fixed up” because they are deficient and were further ravaged from the recent rough winter when tons of deicing salt poured on their decks. But Congress is not capable of passing a six-year highway bill that the nation sorely needs.

“We need a 10-cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, and just as important, it needs to be indexed to the cost of living,” he said. “If the [federal] gas tax that was last raised in 1993 had been indexed, we’d have a pot of money now to support the Highway Trust Fund.”

Because of the vision of President Dwight Eisenhower and the establishment of the trust fund as part of landmark legislation in 1956, the Interstate system was built, and it has been a tremendous boon to the economy. But now members of Congress can’t agree to pass legislation that’s needed to continue its maintenance and pay for other projects.

“We used to be number one in infrastructure, and now we’re number 15,” he lamented. “Increasing the gas tax would help companies like Caterpillar, which could build the machines to help build the roads, and would create jobs for people who would work on them.” LaHood, who left his DOT job last year, said he now consults for Cat and other concerns.

“Build an Interstate road and you create a corridor of commerce. Look what happened when we built the Interstate System – businesses sprung up along them, and they’re owned by small businesspeople.” Industrialists look for infrastructure in siting their factories and other facilities, and right now they’re going to China, which is investing heavily in infrastructure, he said.

Next Tuesday's general election is very important because all 435 members of Congress will be elected, and we need the right people to go to Washington and work together to accomplish visionary projects, he said. 

LaHood praised President Barack Obama and others in his administration, including himself, for having the vision to boost high-speed passenger rail transport. “America needs world-class high-speed rail,” he said, and progress was made with the $8 billion that was part of the $880 billion economic stimulus package passed by a bi-partisan majority of Congress during the Great Recession.

Too many in Congress oppose the Obama administration’s ideas “just because they’re his,” he said, later acknowledging that most of the obstructionists are Republicans. Yet “I’m still a Republican, and proud of it.”