3 Highlights From Elaine Chao’s Very Vague Confirmation Hearing

Photo: ElaineChao.com
Photo: ElaineChao.com

Donald Trump’s pick to lead U.S. DOT, Elaine Chao, was one of three Cabinet nominees to face a Senate confirmation hearing this morning.

Chao, a GOP veteran who served as Labor Secretary under George W. Bush, is a conventional Cabinet choice compared to Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson and Senator Jeff Sessions, two other Trump nominees questioned in the Senate today. Her marriage to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and her family’s international shipping empire, however, do raise questions about how she’ll manage the agency.

As Transportation Secretary, the pool of funding directly available to Chao would be relatively small. Her influence would derive mainly from regulatory and approval power. This morning she gave a tight-lipped performance that didn’t reveal much about how she would use those levers, but here are three instances where you can try to read the tea leaves.

On Transit

The most alarming moment of the hearing came when Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell asked if Chao would “support continuation” of Seattle transit projects “already in the pipeline.” Voters in the region recently passed a $53 billion transit expansion package.

It was a softball question where supporting the projects would merely signal continuation of current policy, but Chao dodged, saying, “If I’m confirmed, I need to take a look at those projects.”

Federal dollars typically supplement local funding for transit expansions and are indispensable to get projects done. While total federal spending on transit is determined by law, not by U.S. DOT, Chao’s agency will play a role in determining which transit projects get funded. Her tentative answer to Cantwell may not signal any particular policy shift, but uncertainty about federal transit funding commitments is never good.

New Hampshire Democrat Margaret Hassan also pressed Chao on whether the federal government should play a role in funding projects like a commuter rail line in her state. Some right-wing ideologues have called for abandoning federal spending on transit.

Chao didn’t say much in response, but she didn’t come across as a hardliner, either. She noted that “passenger rail is very popular with riders” and that her “father and sisters came down (to the confirmation hearing) on Amtrak.”

“This is an area that can obviously be very beneficial to the environment,” she added, concluding that she has “supported (transit) in the past” and that she “look(s) forward to reviewing it.”

On Pedestrian Safety

Advocacy groups like Smart Growth America wanted senators to raise the subject of pedestrian safety at today’s hearing. Pedestrian deaths rose 16 percent between 2009 and 2014 and now claim almost 5,000 lives each year. During the Obama administration, U.S. DOT took some steps to overhaul federal street design standards to promote safe walking and biking, and it’s an open question whether those efforts will continue.

Throughout the hearing, Chao repeated the line that safety would be her DOT’s number one priority, but she did not express strong support for street safety reforms when prompted.

Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz said his state, which has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths among elderly residents, has been working hard on safe streets efforts, and asked Chao, “Do we have your commitment?”

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

On TIGER Grants

The Obama administration’s TIGER program is one of the few sources of federal transportation funding that cities and transit agencies can access directly. TIGER has supported many walking, biking, and transit projects, as well as road maintenance, but Congressional Republicans have never warmed to it and repeatedly threatened to zero out funding.

When asked about the program by Hassan, Chao responded: “From all of my meetings with members of Congress there seems to be one area of great agreement and that’s the utility of the TIGER grants.”

Chao added that the $250 million currently devoted to TIGER is a “very modest sum,” and, “I look forward to reviewing it and seeing how much could be devoted to it. ”

Now that TIGER is in the hands of the Trump administration, however, the program may fundamentally change. It’s a discretionary grant program, and there’s no guarantee that Chao’s DOT will spend the funds on the same type of projects that Ray LaHood and Anthony Foxx supported.

  • Miles Bader

    Ugh, the Mitch McConnell association is troubling… It’s gotta be difficult to completely ignore somebody you’re married to…

  • Her response to Maria Cantwell combined with Trump’s simultaneous declaration during his press conference that he was going to only help out states which voted for him should be very troubling for those in cities like Seattle and Los Angeles which just voted to fund transit expansion that was based on some federal assistance.

  • Mitch is dependent on her family’s wealth for his current lifestyle. Ironic because it is derived from a company that uses foreign-flagging and the Marshall Islands shipping loophole (free US Navy protection!) to its great advantage.

  • neroden

    Ohhhhh. TIGER is a semi-discretionary program. Trump likes programs which give his administration discretion. They’ll probably try to make it bigger.

  • Lao

    Vague indeed, but beneficial. I only wish we had the same state hearings in Mass. Our transportation secretary. Ms. Stephanie Ken Snow Pollack is an uber-loving “transit groupie”. At least Chao has talent

  • 9kelly

    Best thing overhead in DC this week: When Pollack screamed out that life is based on performance measurements, a colleague turned and said “does that mean she’s getting fired this month?” Coincidentally, a few hours later, I saw Pollack stuff her face with an Uber-paid dinner. I’ll take Chao vagueness any day over Pollack incompetence

  • Joe

    GO NAVY!

  • DB McWeeberton

    I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this reward/punishment scenario of Trump’s is just a product of his fevered imagination, and that the adults will nod at him and return to business as usual. More practical parts of his administration might be less inclined to stick it to a region with so many $. Maybe.

  • Joe

    Repeat after me…. “I Trust Dow Constantine, I Trust Peter Rogoff, I Trust Brian McCartan, But Most of All: I Trust Karen Kitsis”.

    We will be fine. If the feds want to build rail to nowhere, fine let ’em. We’ll just build sexy light rail to Ballard, to Paine Field, to Everett and yes to Tacoma. GO SOUND TRANSIT!

    #InKitsisWeTrust

  • Joe

    Keep calm everyone. Sound Transit has the best team in the world, the Seattle Seahawks of Public Transportation. Sound Transit has a better O-Line and better Special Teams in Sound Transit than the Seahawks, too.

    We don’t NEED federal bucks. We WANT them though.

  • Yes indeed! Especially if you don’t have to pay for it in taxes!

  • Robert Schupp

    Honestly, I think Elaine Chao, from what I’ve heard at least, seems to be pretty open to new ideas such as driverless cars, and other newer technologies; but it still seems that she might be just like Trump and also emulate the GOP platform, and start a war on PUBLIC transportation…

  • GlobalLA

    Read between the tea leaves? Had she been Hispanic how about Tequila?

  • AnoNYC

    Lol. We’ll see but for some reason I doubt it.

  • Vooch

    Trumps will be privatizing a lot of highways and utility improvements.

    He knows transit benefits extremely well from NYC. He also knows NYC subways were profitable until driven to bankruptcy by greedy politicians.

  • Yes, we’d be checking the agave instead…

  • There are plenty signs that make it look like he’s been practicing the reward/punishment behavior for nearly his entire life. Why would he stop now that he is in one of the most important positions in the world?

  • Ot

    Yes! Stephanie Pollack is the absolute worst. Her husband, Ken Snow, is the ONLY REASON she has a job. period. I have a rental car contact who has the same crazy perm as Pollack. Every time she processes my rental I tell myself: this rental car lady has more transportation experience than our transportation secretary. Pollack and the Green Line Extension junk have to go, asap.

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