Transportation secretary nominee Chao outlines broad plans in confirmation hearing

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Dive Brief:

  • Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for Secretary of Transportation, is expected to sail through confirmation from the Senate after a Wednesday hearing, according to The New York Times.
  • Chao, former labor secretary, former deputy secretary of transportation and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), answered largely in generalities when asked about drone use, the possibility of increased airport user fees to fund airport construction and Trump’s infrastructure proposals.
  • Chao briefly drew concern from Democrats over the issue of private funding for infrastructure improvements, including use of the public-private partnership (P3) structure.

Dive Insight:

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) has stated that the possibility of funding a $1 trillion infrastructure program, as Trump has proposed, with only tax breaks and private money is a nonstarter on his side of the aisle. However, Chao seemed to alleviate some Democrats’ concerns around the source of infrastructure funds by telling the committee that a Trump administration would most likely be open to some direct federal spending on infrastructure. However, Republican sentiment around potential stimulus-like spending programs has been largely negative, with previous promises from McConnell to block such an initiative.

Although the prospect of P3s came too close to privatization of federal assets for some Democrats, Chao maintained in the hearing that an updated infrastructure is at the heart of America’s economy, and she said it was important to consider tapping into “equity firms, pension funds and endowments” to pay for much-needed upgrades and repairs. Thus far, Trump has toyed with the idea of various infrastructure tools, including the use of an infrastructure bank through which investments would be funneled.

Chao assured the committee that she would work closely with Congress and keep them informed about the activities of the Department of Transportation and its $75 billion budget. She added that safety is her primary concern as she inherits the responsibility of burgeoning programs like drones and driverless cars.

Chao has a reputation for walking softly when it comes to regulations, so proponents of drone technologies hope she will be amenable to an expansion of some rules, like the possibility drones will be allowed to fly over people. When the first-ever set of commercial drone regulations went into effect last summer, the Federal Aviation Administration said that companies could apply for waivers from flight restrictions and that the agency would use that application process to determine next-generation rules. 

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