updated 1/22/2009 12:09:39 PM ET 2009-01-22T17:09:39

Former congressman Ray LaHood said Wednesday one of his priorities as transportation secretary will be to make sure the money Congress sets aside for construction projects to stimulate the economy is wisely spent.

One of two Republicans President Barack Obama picked to serve in his Cabinet, LaHood also signaled the new administration sees transportation as key to its environmental agenda, telling a Senate panel that all areas of transportation from roads to rails must be "sustainable" to "acknowledge the new reality of climate change."

"One of my first tasks if confirmed will be to manage the open and effective use of those funds," LaHood told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Investments in intercity rail and mass transit, as called for in the $825 billion economic recovery package congressional leaders are trying to quickly pass, are part of the sustainability effort "but only part," LaHood said. "Sustainability must be a principle reflected in all our infrastructure investments, from highways and transit to aviation and ports."

LaHood also promised a sharp divergence from the Bush administration on several thorny transportation issues, promising to:

  • Move forward quickly with regulations to implement new fuel economy rules for cars and trucks. The department is required to set rules by April 1, 2009, if the new requirements are to go into effect by 2011. Former Transportation Secretary Mary Peters proposed but did not finalize rules requiring the next generation of cars and trucks to meet a fleet average of 31. 6 miles per gallon by 2015.
  • Seek a resolution to the bitter labor dispute between the Federal Aviation Administration and air traffic controllers, who have been working without a contract for several years and are retiring in record numbers.
  • Eliminate auctions for takeoff and landing slots at New York's three major airports.

LaHood also described himself as a strong supporter of Amtrak, the nation's intercity passenger rail system, and called legislation passed by Congress last year authorizing $13 billion over five years to Amtrak "a very good bill."

LaHood, 63, was chief of staff for former House Minority Leader Robert Michel, R-Ill., for 10 years before Michel retired and LaHood replaced him. He took office in 1995 as Republicans gained control of the House for the first time in 40 years, and relations between the GOP and congressional Democrats were at a low ebb.

He was praised Wednesday by his Illinois colleague, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, who introduced him at the hearing, for efforts to improve relations between the two parties, including organizing bipartisan retreats for lawmakers and their families.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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