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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

A stark message from Ray LaHood on Georgia’s cloutless D.C. position

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Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, who spoke in Atlanta this week. AJC file/Vino Wong, vwong@ajc.com

Former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood, who spoke in Atlanta this week. AJC file/Vino Wong, vwong@ajc.com

The Rev. Ray LaHood delivered brimstone in Atlanta this week.

Strictly speaking, he is not ordained. LaHood is a former Illinois congressman and, until recently, was the token Republican in the cabinet of President Barack Obama, serving as secretary of transportation.

But he is now a traveling evangelist, preaching against the sin of skin-flintery – or, more specifically, the current attitude that someone else should pay for our use of American roads, bridges and rail.

”We’re in a mess in America when it comes to transportation. Every transit system is 50 years old and crumbling. The interstates are crumbling. Bridges are falling down,” LaHood sermonized on Tuesday, building his argument for a 10-cent increase in the federal gas tax.

His overflowing state Capitol congregation was an eager one – an assembly of state lawmakers and business honchos who have been assigned the task of finding more cash for Georgia’s transportation needs.

As is the case with many revivals, LaHood had a setup man to warm the crowd. Keith Golden, Georgia’s transportation commissioner, told lawmakers the state was spending just enough to repave 2 percent of Georgia roads each year. That’s one layer every 50 years for your path to work.

But Preacher LaHood was the star attraction. And he didn’t limit himself to the topic of cash.

While he gave Georgia kudos for the Nathan Deal/Kasim Reed partnership that has won Washington’s promise of $650 million to dredge the Port of Savannah, LaHood specifically called out the state for committing a grave political sin: Ignoring the role of day-to-day clout in Washington.

Last week, Congress passed a short-term, $10 billion bailout of the shrinking federal Highway Trust Fund. But ultimately, a larger bill will be required. When that happens, LaHood said, Georgia will be in no position to get its fair share of those federal funds.

That’s because a state whose economy is based on the ability to move people and goods from Point A to Point B has not a single member of Congress – in the House or Senate – who sits on one of the two transportation committees that will decide where this desperately needed cash is to go.

“In the next six years, Congress is going to write a new transportation bill. Are you going to have somebody in the room in Washington when that bill is written – that’ll be a voice for Georgia?” LaHood asked.

“You’ve got to step up here. You’ve got to send people to Washington who are willing to help you provide the resources. You cannot do what you want to do in this state with your own resources,” LaHood said.

Tea partyers will not do, he suggested. Lately, the one member of the Georgia delegation who has focused specifically on transportation has been U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ranger. Graves has suggested that federal gas tax revenue simply be shipped back to the states to spend as they wish.

A non-starter, LaHood declared. “If that happened, we wouldn’t have an interstate system. Some states wouldn’t have the money to build them – like in North Dakota, South Dakota. States like that,” he said.

For many in the room, LaHood’s declaration of Georgia’s cloutless position in Washington was a forehead-slapping moment of revelation. Rather like the visitor who walks through your door and delivers the news that some people have toilets inside the house – and are doing quite well by them.

Once you give the idea some thought, its truth becomes rather obvious.

For years, because of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, transportation was part of the portfolio carried by a congressional member from metro Atlanta. When he was in the House, Johnny Isakson hefted that suitcase.

The last Georgian to serve as a member of a House or Senate transportation committee in Washington was U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland. He left in 2011 – and for good reason.

At the height of the Great Recession, Westmoreland’s congressional district had more bank failures than any in the country. And so Westmoreland shifted his attention to the House banking committee.

Westmoreland now serves on the House steering committee that determines committee assignments in that chamber. The Coweta County congressman told me that his hell-or-high-water goal is to put two Georgia members on the House transportation committee come January.

“Florida already has six,” Westmoreland said.

One of the two is likely to be Buddy Carter, the GOP state senator from Pooler who is now the favorite in the race to replace U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Savannah. There is a Democrat in the race, but the First District is drawn for a Republican.

“I would have an interest in it, simply because we need somebody on that committee,” Carter said this week.

But Barry Loudermilk, the Republican state senator who will replace U.S. Rep. Phil Gingrey of Marietta next year, is likely to be an ally in Graves’ effort to disassemble federal transportation funding.

Likewise Jody Hice, a Republican pastor and conservative talk show host who now is the favorite to replace U.S. Rep. Paul Broun of Athens – though Hice has Democratic opposition.

This was the dilemma at the heart of Preacher LaHood’s sermon. In order to stake your claim to a large pot of Washington money, you have to believe that the pot should actually exist.

And many Georgians don’t. Even those who drive.

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