WASHINGTON (CN) - Republicans heaped ridicule on Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at a Wednesday hearing after LaHood suggested that bicycling and walking are just as good ways to get around as cars. To laughter, Republican House members suggested LaHood was taking drugs, dismissed the very idea of bike lanes and derided any change to a car-dependent society. "What job is going to be created by having a bike lane?" asked Ohio Republican Steven LaTourette.
He suggested that environmental sustainability projects have "stolen" $300 million from other programs and to attacked LaHood's encouragement of bicycling, on a personal level. "If it's not a typo, is there still mandatory drug-testing at the department?" said the wit, to chuckles from the back of the room.
The brouhaha over LaHood's statements on his Web site came up in the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.
LaHood, also a Republican, had urged the states to "treat walking and bicycling as equals with other transportation modes." He also wrote on his blog this week, "This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized. We think livability means giving folks the flexibility to choose their own mobility."
Congress is reviewing the $75.3 billion transportation budget request for fiscal year 2011.
With a new focus on livability and environmental sustainability, the department plans to funnel $1 billion of the new budget to high-speed passenger rail and $1.6 billion for government-owned Amtrak, which primarily carries freight.
Testifying at the hearing, Roy Kienitz, Under Secretary of the Transportation Department, said the administration is considering a shift from highway to water and rail for freight, as more fuel-efficient than trucks. The department plans to invest $57 million in water transport.
Kienitz said that transportation funding has changed under a program authorized by the Recovery Act last year. Each freight transportation mode has largely been funded from its own trust fund, in some cases drawing only on private money for projects that benefit the public, Kienitz said.
"Investments have been dictated by where the funding came from rather than where the investments could have the greatest impact on the desired outcomes," he said.
Republicans pounced on statements and what LaHood called a "sea change" in transportation policy. Ranking Member Tom Latham from Iowa said that one biker is one less person paying into the transportation trust fund and said real transportation needs are being "swept aside."
By increasing federal funds, as opposed to relying so heavily on trust funds, the government has been able to develop important areas of transportation that are otherwise overlooked, like the short but over-used corridors between ports and highways.
In selecting projects, the department says it is prioritizing environmental sustainability, livability, safety, economic competitiveness and state of good repair.
Kienitz also noted that the department still performs drug tests.