UTC Student Researchers Inspired by Meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary LaHood

By Linsey Maughan


December 6, 2012


A group of student researchers from the Urban Transportation Center had a rare chance to meet U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary of Ray LaHood during the annual UIC Urban Forum held Thursday, Dec. 6, 2012 at the University of Illinois at Chicago Forum Building.

LaHood was the keynote speaker at the forum, the theme of which was “Metropolitan Resilience in a Time of Economic Turmoil.”

The meeting between transportation center staff and LaHood was an informal question-and-answer session and lasted approximately 30 minutes. Topics discussed included current federal transportation initiatives such as distracted driving awareness, passenger rail, and partnerships with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regarding livable communities.


LaHood also addressed future funding sources for transportation, and what issues might be prominent in transportation as the students grow into their careers.

“[LaHood] was particularly passionate in his defense of high-speed rail and assertion that it will be an American reality,” said Jenny Kane, a graduate research assistant and first-year student in UIC’s Master of Urban Planning and Policy program.

LaHood’s encouraging remarks on high-speed rail proved eye-opening to research assistant Adam Barnum, also a first-year master’s student in Urban Planning and Policy.

“[He] stated that he believed it would become our generation's legacy, just like the interstate highway system was more or less his generation's legacy,” Barnum said.

“I never thought to compare the interstate system with high speed rail, but if that becomes a reality, the U.S. will have a very different transportation infrastructure system in the future. The secretary seemed extremely optimistic about the progress made so far, making me more confident that it can be done.”

A number of the students who participated in the conversation with LaHood are working on U.S. DOT-funded research projects, and the students discussed their work and with LaHood and thanked him for the federal funding that supports their research.

“[LaHood] was engaged in each of the projects discussed, and open to future studies,” said Jane Wilberding, a first-year graduate student in Urban Planning and Policy and a research assistant at the transportation center.

Graduate research assistant Jake Rueter, also a first-year student in the Master of Urban Planning program, said he too appreciated LaHood’s interest in the work underway at the Urban Transportation Center.

“I found Secretary LaHood to be very welcoming and open to hearing about the research that we are working on at the UTC. I was also grateful to hear his insights regarding the transportation system in the United States on a broad scale,” Rueter said.

The conversation with LaHood ultimately proved inspiring for the student participants, both in terms of their current studies and their long-term careers in transportation.

“Although I haven't focused on rail so far in my academic or professional career, the conversation with the secretary sparked my interest, and it might be something I look to study sometime in the future,” Barnum said.

Rueter said speaking with LaHood gave him a “newfound excitement” about his research; he felt encouraged “to continue learning all I can through my assistantship at the UTC."

But it was the concept of each generation’s transportation legacy that Wilberding especially took to heart.

“The previous generation brought the interstates and large streetscapes, and we are bringing something entirely new, innovative, and hopefully more efficient,” Wilberding said. “It is both empowering and motivating to be part of such a legacy, and I am excited to see where it takes me in the future.”

Following the meeting, LaHood was interviewed by UTC Executive Director Steve Schlickman during a forum event titled “MAP-21 and What’s Next for Urban Transportation Funding: A Conversation with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.” Among discussion topics, LaHood addressed transportation funding issues that are impacting the economies and social networks of metropolitan regions today.