WASHINGTON -- Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who lifted the profile of distracted driving as a national safety concern, is stepping down, presenting President Barack Obama with another cabinet vacancy at the start of his second term.

The former seven-term congressman from Illinois, one of only two Republicans who served in Obama's cabinet, LaHood worked for more safety in the air and on the ground and pushed for improvements of roads and bridges. Under his watch, the department demanded tougher fuel efficiency from automakers and took steps to address airline pilot fatigue.

Obama, who at one point served with LaHood in the Illinois congressional delegation, said they were "drawn together by a shared belief that those of us in public service owe an allegiance not to party or faction, but to the people we were elected to represent. And Ray has never wavered in that belief."

LaHood, 67, said in an interview with The Associated Press that he told Obama a week after the November election he needed to move on. But he also said he was still "conflicted" by his decision because he liked working for the president and considered it the "best job I've ever had in public service." He said he plans to remain at the department until a successor is confirmed by the Senate.

The only other Republican in Obama's first-term cabinet was Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who stepped aside earlier and was replaced by Democrat Leon Panetta.

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LaHood, once considered likely to run for governor in his home state, said he would not seek public office and didn't have any specific plans.

"I have had a good run. I'm one of these people who believe that you should go out while they're applauding," he said. LaHood said he was content to watch from the sidelines as his oldest son, Darin, serves in the Illinois state senate.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Panetta and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner are also departing and the heads of the Interior and Labor departments have announced their resignations.

Possible replacements for LaHood include Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Debbie Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board. Former Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota has also been mentioned.