AASHTO Journal, 22 December 2016
Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to be the next transportation secretary, told the Senate committee that oversees her nomination she wants to see strong enforcement of safety rules, and to speed up infrastructure projects regardless of whether there is more funding.
Chao made her comments Dec. 20 in written responses to questions from the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Since Trump has vowed to develop a major infrastructure investment plan, Chao has been seen as someone who would play a key role in selling it on Capitol Hill and implementing the transportation portions afterward. She is also married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will help decide if and when such a program reaches the Senate floor for votes.
Chao had met Dec. 6 with Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., after which Thune issued a statement saying he and Chao had “discussed infrastructure needs and challenges, including the unique needs of rural states, as well as the Department of Transportation’s role in overseeing the development of advancements in cutting-edge transportation systems like self-driving vehicles and unmanned aircraft systems.”
Noting that Chao as former U.S. labor secretary had already been through the confirmation process, Thune said “she brings a valuable perspective and experience back into public service and I look forward to working with her on infrastructure investment legislation and other important transportation initiatives.”
In her responses to questions for the confirmation process, Chao said she believes her background “makes me well suited” for the top USDOT job. She cited her previous government experience as labor chief, deputy transportation secretary, chair of the Federal Maritime Commission and deputy chief of the USDOT’s Maritime Administration. Chao also said she had been a transportation banker at two financial institutions.
She said all that had “prepared me not only for the management challenges of a large federal department, but also for the task of providing leadership and developing legislation and regulatory programs that will enhance transportation safety and infrastructure for our country.”
Asked to state what she sees as the top challenges facing the USDOT, Chao said a top priority “is to maintain a culture of good stewardship on behalf of the American people.”
She said that means “effective enforcement of safety measures; getting the most benefit from the department’s expenditures including strengthening its planning and acquisition practices; and preparing for the future by considering new technologies in our infrastructure.”
In addition, “given the nation’s need to improve critical infrastructure, it is important to find ways to expedite the process of making repairs and building new constructions and decreasing the regulatory burdens when appropriate,” Chao wrote. “With or without a new infusion of funds, it is necessary to look at the existing processes for infrastructure development and find more efficient ways to address bottlenecks in planning and permitting.
Finally, she said that “with so many needs everywhere in the country, a big challenge will be to strive for equity between urban and rural areas, among different modes of transportation, and other competing but equally deserving stakeholders.”