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Chao outlines transportation priorities from skies to roads

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 1/11/2017 Bart Jansen
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WASHINGTON — Elaine Chao, a former cabinet secretary for one president and an assistant secretary for another, outlined her priorities Wednesday for improving roads and airports as President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of Transportation.

“Our country’s transportation infrastructure is the underpinning of our world-class economy,” Chao said at her Senate confirmation hearing. “These gains are jeopardized by infrastructure in need of repair, the specter of rising highway fatalities, growing congestion, and by a failure to keep pace with emerging technologies.”

Trump has proposed $1 trillion in construction over the next decade on all forms of transportation, including roads, airports and ports. But key lawmakers have questioned the size of his proposal and the financing, for which he suggested tax credits to encourage private spending.

“Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner,” Trump said in a statement.

Congress approved a five-year highway bill in late 2015, but lawmakers were reluctant to increase the gas tax for the $305 billion legislation. The next extension will rekindle the debate over how to raise money for the highway trust fund and where to distribute it for highways, bridges and transit.

Chao said a “major challenge is to unleash the potential for private investment.”

"We look forward to working with you on all options," she said. "We know the government doesn't have the resources to do it all."

Chao noted that the highway trust fund spends $10 billion more each year than it collects, with 90% coming from the gas tax. Each proposal for bolstering the funding has champions and detractors, which she said must be debated.

“The highway trust fund is in bad shape," Chao said. “This is a huge issue."

Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao arrives Nov. 21, 2016, at Trump Tower in New York, to meet with President-elect Donald Trump, who chose her to lead his Transportation Department. © Carolyn Kaster, AP Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao arrives Nov. 21, 2016, at Trump Tower in New York, to meet with President-elect Donald Trump, who chose her to lead his Transportation Department. Born in Taiwan, Chao came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 8. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College and Harvard Business School. She was director of the Peace Corps and CEO of United Way of America.

Chao, 63, served as labor secretary during the eight years of President George W. Bush’s administration and as assistant transportation secretary for President George H.W. Bush. She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who heads the transportation panel, said he couldn't imagine a more ideal candidate than Chao.

“Secretary Chao, if confirmed, you will have a momentous opportunity to transform America’s transportation network by promoting safety and innovation," Thune said. 

Her experience will be an advantage in light of the major legislation facing her immediately.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s authorizing legislation expires Sept. 30. Among the issues is whether to shift air-traffic controllers to a private corporation, for more predictable funding from the industry than from Congress.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who is opposed to privatization, said there is huge disagreement between the House and Senate on the subject. The Defense Department opposed the change, and the proposal would be costly and disruptive, he said. Nelson asked for Chao’s opinion.

“I’d like to get confirmed first,” she said to laughter.

More seriously, she said there must be a national consensus on the subject, which will take time for discussion.

“Obviously this is an issue of great importance,” Chao said. “The administration has not made a decision on this point.”

Another aviation dispute is that airports have urged an increase in the federal cap on local ticket fees to improve aging terminals, but airlines have opposed the move. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., asked whether Chao supported improving airport infrastructure.

“We need more resources to build, repair, refurbish our infrastructure," Chao said, without committing to a specific funding source.

The department recently granted approval for Norwegian Air International to serve the U.S. But rival airlines and their unions contend the department should reverse that decision because the airline headquartered in Ireland is skirting labor laws, an allegation the airline strongly denies.

Likewise, U.S. airlines have urged the department for years to block additional flights from three Middle East rivals — Emirates, Etihad and Qatar — under the argument that billions of dollars in government subsidies make them unfair competitors. But the Gulf carriers deny receiving subsidies and contend U.S. airlines are trying to limit competition.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., asked whether Chao would work with her to protect American workers from unfair competition from foreign airlines.

“I look forward to working with you on this important issue, if confirmed,” Chao said.

Lawmakers and department regulators are also creating rules for fast-evolving technology. As drones increasingly share the skies with passenger planes, the FAA is developing rules for allowing them to fly higher above people and farther than the pilot can see. The department is shaping policy for self-driving cars, with a goal of reducing the 30,000 vehicle deaths each year.

“Safety will continue to be the primary objective,” Chao said. “Regulatory decisions should be rooted in analysis derived from sound science and data.”

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