Students questioned U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood about the changing path of the U.S transportation system under the Obama administration.
LaHood addressed the Galesburg Area Chamber of Commerce at a luncheon in the Lincoln Room before holding a question and answer session with Knox students. He was joined by Representative Don Moffitt, Senator Dale Risinger, and Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper.
“All of us here at Knox are real tickled that the Chamber of Commerce chose Knox as the site for this historic event,” said President Roger Taylor. He cited Amtrak’s impact on the Knox community, noting that Colorado is the college’s third largest feeder state because of the railroad.
During his discussion with the Chamber of Commerce, Secretary LaHood agreed with Taylor’s sentiment.
“I know passenger rail and Amtrak have been the lifeblood of Knox County and Knox College,” said LaHood, noting Amtrak’s importance in other college towns like Bloomington-Normal and Macomb.
“Strengthening our rail infrastructure is a top priority of the Obama administration,” said LaHood. He emphasized the important role rail plays in Galesburg’s economic recovery.
“You know what your economic engine is,” he told the Chamber.
He called Knox County “a jewel on the prairie in America.”
LaHood lauded the people of Illinois for their “resilience and resourcefulness.” He praised Galesburg for its strength throughout the economic downturn.
“Galesburg’s comin’ back,” he said to the Chamber. “America will, too.”
The Secretary discussed the funding available to make the Galesburg Amtrak station more accessible and improve the city’s transit system.
Distracted driving, according to LaHood, is also a major concern. He warned Chamber members and students alike of the dangers of driving while texting or talking on a cell phone.
Before LaHood’s discussion with Knox Students in the Red Room of Seymour Library, Rodney Davis, Co-Director of the Lincoln Studies Center, presented the Secretary with a copy of The Lincoln-Douglas Debates and Lincoln and Douglas at Galesburg DVD.
Proud to be the only Peoria native to serve in the President’s cabinet, LaHood spoke about his unlikely political career.
“I’m living proof that in America, you can do whatever you want,” he said. “My father didn’t graduate from high school [… ] but the one thing he knew was that it was very important for his children getting a college education.”
“We never talked about politics in my house,” he continued. “I could have never told you the name of even one politician.”
LaHood wanted to teach. He attended Bradley University in Peoria. During his career as a junior high schoolteacher, he became interested in politics.
“We’re always trying to make a difference,” he said of those working with government policy.
Making a difference has not always been easy, according to LaHood.
“Politics is a relationships business,” he said. He later stressed the importance of persistence.
“One person can make a difference. You just keep talking; make a case and get others behind you,” he said.
Roger Taylor reiterated the difficulty inherent in bringing about change. In response to a question posed about civil discourse in today’s political environment, Taylor replied, “Big things don’t come easy.” He reminded attendees about the hard won Civil Rights Act.
LaHood agreed, adding that the development of 24/7 news networks has been a detriment to civil discourse.
“99.9 percent of the people who serve in Congress are good people who come to work to get something done and solve problems,” he said. “Incessant talk show hosts trash the process and the people involved.”
Before answering student questions, LaHood called Knox “a neat place to be able to get an education.”
Students were primarily concerned with the environmental stability of America’s mass transit systems and their fluidity and accessibility, particularly to those in suburban areas.
Senior Sarah Furey questioned the amount of funding allocated to the research and development of sustainable fuels like biodiesel. Her question was answered by Amtrak Chairman Tom Carper. He cited electric rail’s emergence in the northeast and the state of Iowa’s utilization of bio-fuel. LaHood assured Furey that bio-fuels were very much “on the radar.”
Furey later commented that though LaHood and Carper seemed open to new policies, they did not seem to be pushing them.
“They gave examples of success stories, instead of looking towards what we were going to do in the future,” she said.
Fellow Peoria native and Knox junior Laura Jorgenson asked LaHood about public transport in and around Peoria. LaHood agreed that Peoria’s bus service could be expanded, but that extending the system out to Peoria suburbs was not necessary.
“If the demand were there, people would be talking about it,” he said.
“I’ve talked to people in the suburbs,” she said. “Younger people say yes, but older people are afraid of influence it might bring to the area.”
Jorgenson understands the reasons behind this dissonance of opinion.
“Things like national security are more important than things like public transit in suburban areas,” she said. “Priorities in a country are not always what a typical Knox College student would want.”
Junior Abe Zumwalt brought the issue of public transit’s fluidity to light. “There’s no fluid system of transportation,” he said.
“Intermodalism is important,” LaHood said, “Things are not connected the way they should be, but it’s the wave of the future.”
He cited examples of effective systems. He referenced Washington DC’s metro system and a light rail network in Los Angeles, California.
“[The system] went through three different neighborhoods: Hispanic, African American, and Asian, all affordable housing connected by this light rail system,” he said. “Those people now can go to [… ] their jobs in L.A. and never have to purchase an automobile.”
Zumwalt later responded to LaHood’s comments.
“He cited the fact that an unprecedented number of cities are beginning to revive public transport, and transport hubs via centrally located historic train stations,” said Zumwalt. “He did not, however, note any federal policy regarding the matter of ‘a more perfect infrastructure.’”
Senior Marc Dreyfuss was somewhat surprised by LaHood’s Q and A session.
“I didn’t get much out of it because he didn’t seem to give that much information,” he said. “[LaHood] definitely holds the beliefs and opinions of the Obama administration which is odd, considering he is a lifelong republican.”
LaHood was asked how the construction of overpasses in Galesburg would affect Knox students specifically.
“[The construction] will encourage a strong economy. A good economy attracts businesses and students to an area,” he said. “If you build it, they will come.”