When U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stood on a table at the National Bike Summit in 2010 and said "People do want alternatives -- they want out of their cars, they want out of congestion, they want to live in livable neighborhoods," it marked a significant moment in the evolution of American transportation.
Here was a politician and a bureaucrat, a guy in a suit, the person in charge, talking about being inspired by long walks on a rail-trail and the importance of pathways for families to "hang out and have fun." In the words of Vince Vaughn, here was one enlightened cat.
With Sec. LaHood announcing last week he would step down from the role of the nation's top transportation official he has filled since 2009, the urgency is building for supporters of trails and active transportation to find a worthy replacement.
Marianne Fowler, RTC's senior vice president of federal relations, says LaHood championed federal programs that supported investments in active transportation infrastructure, often despite significant political pressure. "Secretary LaHood was very much a leader of the movement, rather than a follower," she says. "He'll leave behind a legacy of unprecedented support for biking, walking and other active modes as legitimate forms of transportation." It was for that reason that Sec. LaHood was honored, with rail-trail advocates and pioneers from across the country, as one of RTC's 25 Rail-Trail Champions as part of our 25th Anniversary celebrations in 2011.
A former high school teacher, LaHood's great affection for trails was born from many hours spent on the Rock Island Trail in his hometown of Peoria, Ill. He became a staunch supporter of rail-trail programs during a critical time for transportation funding, and his impassioned speech before Congress in 2003 defending Transportation Enhancements earned him great respect from active transportation advocates and provided one of the highest-profile statements in defense of trails, walking and bicycling.
"I know it is probably not fashionable for me to be up here talking in favor of this amendment, but I feel strongly about it," he said. "If we really want Americans to be fit and healthy and get in good shape, the way to do it is to allow for the enhancement program that has worked so well, that allows people to get outdoors, to ride their bikes, to jog, to walk. What better way to bring people in a community together."
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy is leading a coalition of groups from across America in urging President Obama to nominate a successor as transportation secretary who understands the importance of trails, active transportation and healthy communities.
Please take a quick minute to sign our petition asking the president to continue the nation's progress toward a more modern, healthier and sustainable transportation system - the America of the future will thank you!