U.S. transportation chief defends stimulus package

MANATEE — The country’s top transportation official defended the federal economic stimulus package, said a new transportation bill should be delayed and sympathized with local officials’ pleas for more — and streamlined rules for spending — federal money during a brief stop Monday at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the $787 billion stimulus “is out there, creating jobs,” especially in transportation, where his agency has released more than half of its $48 billion share.

“We’re making a difference,” he told reporters after the hour-long, town hall-style meeting with more than 75 local officials. “That’s the key. We’re putting people to work.”

LaHood was responding to growing criticism, primarily from Republican quarters, of the stimulus package’s effectiveness in jump-starting the moribund U.S. economy in the five months since its passage.

Among those critics was the man who invited him to SRQ: Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota.

Buchanan told the Bradenton Herald last week, “Clearly in my mind it hasn’t worked,” but stressed bipartisanship while hosting LaHood, one of two Republican members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.

“My goal is to get people working together,” Buchanan said.

LaHood also is at odds with some GOP lawmakers on extending the current federal transportation spending bill by up to 18 months.

The current bill expires Sept. 30, which is not enough time to implement the administration’s vision for revamping transportation priorities and spending, he said.

That includes streamlining regulations associated with federal money so local projects are tackled sooner, which LaHood said his agency proved it could do with the stimulus. That heartened local officials, who complained it typically takes a dozen years before a federally funded project becomes reality.

“To hear the secretary of transportation say that, that shows he gets it,” said Manatee County Commissioner Joe McClash.

Other local officials advocated expanding Port Manatee, building more bicycle paths and sidewalks, finding new sources of money for road projects, and providing more money and financial flexibility for mass transit.

While LaHood’s visit was brief, officials said they hope it leaves a lasting impression that benefits the region.

“The important fact is that he came here and personally heard the questions and the issues,” said Michael Howe, executive director of the Sarasota/Manatee Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.