In his first news conference since being appointed U.S. secretary of transportation, former Congressman Ray LaHood said the best thing to jumpstart the struggling economy is to get economic stimulus money to the states.

The best thing to jump-start the struggling economy is to get stimulus money to the states, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said Friday.

LaHood said he will conduct a conference call, likely next week, with all 50 state transportation chiefs to discuss stimulus legislation. Though he said it’s not yet known which projects will be funded, money will flow “almost immediately” after a final bill is passed to start building infrastructure such as roads, bridges and highways.

“I was struck by our hometown newspaper here today. When you look at the news, it’s not good. This is a reflection of what’s going on in the country. There are a lot of people out of work. There are a lot of people hurting. That’s the reason why I think the president is pushing so hard for this stimulus package,” LaHood said.

The retired Republican congressman held his first news conference since being appointed to President Obama’s Cabinet in Peoria at the Illinois Department of Transportation and also conducted an interview with the Journal Star’s editorial board. The appointment was made Dec. 19; LaHood was sworn in Jan. 23.

He wouldn’t comment on the current version of the stimulus bill that includes $30 billion for highways, $1.1 billion for rail, $12 billion for transit and $3 billion for aviation.

“I think we all ought to wait, cool our jets a bit and be patient, see what the Senate does and, ultimately, see what the conference does,” he said, adding he expects the bill to receive some Republican support there.

LaHood predicted the bill will mean good news for Peoria-based Caterpillar Inc., whose equipment, he said, hopefully will be used to build the infrastructure.

“This is a win-win for this community if we can get people back to work, get people building roads and some of the equipment they’ll be using is manufactured right here in Peoria, Decatur, Joliet or wherever,” LaHood said.

One of Obama’s top transportation-related priorities is high-speed rail. LaHood said Obama asked his opinion and charged the department with finding ideas that “are doable” as it relates to high-speed rail possibly in largely populated regions.

“Maybe Obama’s man on the moon thing is a high-speed rail somewhere,” LaHood said.

Light rail and truck safety also are tagged as “very important.”

Accountability and transparency on how that money is spent also is being stressed with a Web site listing how the money is spent with no earmarks — something LaHood staunchly defended when he was a U.S. representative.

“The bar that has been set the highest by the president is that he wants to stay away from these earmarked dollars. There’s been so much controversy about them,” LaHood said.

LaHood also distanced himself a bit from Peoria and the 18th Congressional District that he represented for 14 years, declining any specifics on how downstate Illinois can benefit from his being named transportation secretary.

“My job is more than Peoria now. I didn’t get elected to anything in the last election. I work for the Obama administration. I’m a part of his team,” LaHood said. “My job is to carry out the president’s agenda and to work with the states to see that the money gets out so people can go to work.”

LaHood, 63, retired Jan. 2 after serving as representative from the 18th District since 1994. He is the first Peorian to hold a Cabinet position and said party labels should be put aside.

“The election is over,” LaHood said. “There’s no labels. Everybody has one goal: let’s get the country moving forward, let’s get the economy moving forward, let’s get people back to work. It has nothing to do with party labels.”

Karen McDonald can be reached at (309) 686-3285 or kmcdonald@pjstar.com.