Echoing the laments of pundits like Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood argued Saturday that China outpaces the United States in building major transportation infrastructure like high-speed rail because of its authoritarian system and because the Chinese don't have the Republican Party holding up progress.
"The Chinese are more successful [in building infrastructure] because in their country, only three people make the decision. In our country, 3,000 people do, 3 million," LaHood said in a short interview with The Cable on the sidelines of the 2012 Aspen Ideas Festival on June 30. "In a country where only three people make the decision, they can decide where to put their rail line, get the money, and do it. We don't do it that way in America."
LaHood said that despite this, democracy is still preferable. "We have the best system of government anywhere on the planet. It is the best. Because the people have their say," he said.
During his conference session at the festival, LaHood blamed Republicans in Congress, especially the Tea Party freshman class elected in 2010, for the relative lack of progress in moving forward with high-speed rail even though the administration has obligated more than $11 billion to the effort.
"Two years ago, between 50 to 60 Republicans were elected to the House of Representatives to come to Washington to do nothing, and that's what they've done and they've stopped any progress. Those people don't have any vision about what the government can do. That's been a real inhibitor in our ability to think outside the box and think big," he said.
"We used to be No. 1. We're not No. 1 anymore. We're No. 23," he continued. "Previous generations have always left something to the next generation. We owe it to the next generation to leave them something. We shortchange the next generation if we don't leave them high-speed rail. That's our obligation."
LaHood boldly predicted in his remarks at the conference that 80 percent of Americans will be connected with passenger rail within the next 25 years. He said that this will be accomplished through a series of commitments by the federal government, state governments, and the private sector.
"That's how they did in Europe, that's how they did it in Asia, and that's how we will do it in America," he said. "There's no turning back on this. We're not going to turn back. And you know why? Because that's what the people want. That's why... there's no stopping high speed rail."
LaHood heavily criticized the governors of Wyoming and Florida, who have rejected federal attempts to move forward with high-speed rail in their states, and he fought off a heckler from California who said that high-speed rail was not a wise investment of taxpayer money.
"Doing nothing is not acceptable. Don't be coming here and telling me it's not acceptable if you don't have an alternative. It's coming to California," LaHood exclaimed. "All the studies show, if you build it they will come."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.