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Capitol Watch: Elaine Chao – What a 1990 document can tell us about Trump's pick for Transportation Secretary

By Anna Denecke, Associate, Blakey & Agnew

As the Senate prepares to consider President-elect Trump's nomination of Elaine Chao to be the next Secretary of Transportation, lawmakers have an extensive resume to review. In addition to Chao's tenure as George W. Bush's Secretary of Labor, she held several positions in the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), including Chair of the Federal Maritime Commission and Deputy Administrator of the Maritime Administration. Secretary Chao also served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation from 1989 to 1991 under Secretary Sam Skinner.

It was during her Deputy Secretary tenure that Skinner appointed Chao to develop a National Transportation Policy (NTP), alongside then- Federal Highway Administrator Thomas Larson. The NTP was to assess the overall U.S. transportation system and identify structural needs through the year 2050.

In order to produce a thorough assessment, Ms. Chao and others conducted extensive outreach and held over 30 public hearings in locations around the country, according to the Federal Highway Administration's Public Roads magazine archives. Their work culminated in the release of "Moving America: New Directions, New Opportunities" in March, 1990. The report served to set a new national transportation policy as the country readied itself for the 21st century. Today, the document contains useful insights into Chao's agenda and priorities as the potential 18th Secretary of Transportation for the United States of America.

Chief among the themes of "Moving America" is an emphasis on fostering a sound financial base for transportation. While the long-term financial outlook for the Highway Trust Fund was significantly different in 1990 than it is today, USDOT's report nevertheless stresses the need to relax federal restrictions on states and local governments' abilities to raise their own funds, especially through tolls. "Moving America" also finds that the private sector is an underutilized resource and that public-private partnerships and other innovative financing options should be further explored.

While "Moving America" promotes fostering state, local, and private funding initiatives, the 1990 report makes a strong commitment to provide financially for systems and projects of national significance. "The Federal Government must concentrate more

of its transportation resources on facilities and projects that advance the performance of transportation systems of national significance," said Secretary Skinner in his remarks at the unveiling of the report.

"Moving America" is nearly 30 years old, but its emphasis on funding projects of national significance is still timely. Today, competition for ever-shrinking federal resources is fierce, forcing project developers to analyze the federal role and responsibility in all projects needing money.

For freight infrastructure, that role is decreed through Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which gives Congress jurisdiction over matters of interstate commerce. According to "Mapping Freight," a 2014 Brookings report, 77 percent of the nation's goods move between states. $17 trillion in goods are traded between regions of the country ever year, far outweighing the $3 trillion in annual import and export trade.

79 percent of all goods rely on just 10 percent of the country's trade corridors to be moved, according to Brookings, meaning freight transportation in the United States is highly concentrated. Meanwhile, unfettered goods movement is vital to our economy. By very definition, projects that enhance or repair the freight network are projects of national significance.

Should Secretary Chao be confirmed to head the U.S. Department of Transportation this month, she will find a host of megaprojects in major metropolitan areas and trade corridors that stand to benefit from federal partnership and investment. Improvements to America's freight network fit squarely within a philosophy that prioritizes federal funding for projects of national significance.

Blakey & Agnew, LLC is a public affairs and
communications consulting firm based in
Washington, DC.