The Five Worst Legacies of the Chao Years — And How to Undo Them

Source: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Source: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao presided over four disastrous years for America’s transport systems — and her successor will face a tough battle to reverse the damage she caused and make up for the opportunities she missed, experts say.

Spurred by the agenda of President Trump, and with the help of a Republican-led Senate, Chao engineered broadly anti-environmental policies that neglected critical transportation improvements for anyone but drivers, while also inequitably distributing taxpayer funds to benefit her home state and allowing our nation’s automobile fleet to get dirtier.

Here are just a few of the ways Chao set our country back — and a few thoughts on how her successor (Rep. Ayanna Pressley? Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García? Rep. Earl Blumenauer? Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti?) can chart a better path, no matter who wins the House and Senate once the dust settles.

Obstructing sustainable projects

Even when faced with a strong public or congressional mandate, Chao and her team repeatedly dithered on key investments into sustainable transportation, including questionable delays on the delivery of crucial funds to major transit agencies like Caltrain at the start of her tenure and saddling New York City’s congestion pricing program with an onerous review process that is still holding up a historic project that could serve as a model for the rest of the country (an irony on several levels, given how frequently the Trump administration boasted of ending what it considered needless environmental review altogether).

“It was really four years of foot dragging, keeping cities and transit agencies in suspense about whether they were going to get grants, delaying on anything meaningful,” said Ben Fried, spokesman for TransitCenter. “We really had really a lost four years at DOT. I really can’t point to any positive legacy.”

President-elect Joe Biden’s pick will have a clear mandate here: take up the many shovel-ready sustainable projects that Chao and her colleagues have delayed —including ones that don’t involve shovels at all, like supporting operating expenses for transit agencies — and get them done.

Taking away TIGER’s teeth

The Chao administration’s relentless obstructionism was matched only by the zeal with which it weaponized the discretionary grants program under its purview against the climate and vulnerable road users.

Chao completely revamped Obama’s signature TIGER program, which provided key funds for biking, walking, and especially transit, and transformed it into the BUILD program, which rapidly morphed into a cash cow for rural highway projects. At the program’s low point, 69 percent the funds allocated under BUILD grants were devoted to projects that only benefitted drivers; during the Obama years, the ratio of road to transit dollars was essentially reversed.

Giving TIGER back to public transportation (and active modes that connect to transit) will absolutely be key, and won’t require congressional approval. But most of the advocates we spoke to hope that Chao’s successor will offer an even bolder course correction to make up for the four years of that transit was forced to languish with scant federal investment, and prioritize a wide range of smart transit projects rather than simply returning to the pre-Trump status quo.

“Even under Obama, a big chunk of those [discretionary] funds went to streetcar programs — and that wasn’t often a good use of money,” said Fried. “The next question is, how expansively will the next DOT secretary see their role, and will they bring people on who know how to use the levers available to the agency to effect change? We just saw cities across the country approve a ton of state and local transit measures; one thing [the secretary] could do, maybe, is to reward cities with a pot of funds if they successfully enact these local revenue sources.”

Dirtier cars

A lot of the Trump administration’s transportation policy came down to not-so-benign neglect for sustainable modes — but when it comes to it’s more direct attacks on the future of planet, Chao certainly chipped in. Her DOT rolled back basic fuel economy standards across the industry, which increased carbon emissions nationwide while undermining the climate action plans set by states that didn’t anticipate a White House deliberately putting heavy-polluting cars on the road. And it wasn’t the only way that Chao’s department poisoned the planet.

“One of the worst things that this administration did was the repealing of resolutions that asked state departments of transportation to simply measure transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America and herself a rumored candidate for Chao’s job. “That’s all it asked — just to measure it. But there’s a notion that, if you admit to [polluting], you could be held accountable.”

Biden has promised to face our harsh climate change outlook head-on with a $2-trillion transportation plan that favors electric cars, so his pick is likely to restore and even strengthen emissions standards. But if we want to make up for the ground we lost in the last four years, it will be essential that his appointee prioritize modes of transportation that are truly green from cradle to grave.

A huge step back for pedestrian safety 

For safe streets advocates, perhaps Chao’s biggest outrage of the last four years came just last month, when she declared October 2020 “National Pedestrian Safety Month” — and then proceeded to essentially blame walkers for their own death crisis. But it was just the latest insult from an administration that watched on as vulnerable road user deaths climbed every single year, and battled that horrifying epidemic with little more than wan road user education efforts.

“When I think back on this administration, I will think of hot car awareness campaigns, and distracted driving campaigns, and not much else,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “It’s an unbelievable abrogation of responsibility. Because the truth is, our nation has had public awareness campaigns for decades, when what we really needed — and still need — are minimum performance standards to get crash avoidance systems into new cars and save lives.”

Under the umbrella of Chao’s DOT, agencies such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Administration failed to enact new vehicle safety technology that’s now common across the globe, including automatic emergency braking systems, blind spot detection, passive alcohol detection systems, and speed limiters, especially on commercial vehicles. Those measures are even more important in the emerging realm of autonomous cars, which Chao allowed to be tested on the road with little oversight and troubling safety exemptions.

That wasn’t the only time Trump’s DOT secretary ignored road safety — because they even failed to acknowledge that traffic violence itself is a preventable phenomenon. Earlier this year, DOT leadership rejected the opportunity to join other nations around the world who committed to Global Road Safety Goals to reach Vision Zero by 2050.

“If we’ve learned anything in the past decade as the U.S. has fallen behind other nations in keeping people safe — especially children who are twice as likely to die in traffic fatalities in the U.S. compared to other wealthy nations — it is that we cannot simply educate our way out of this public health crisis,” said Leah Shahum, founder and director of the Vision Zero Network.

Even with a motivated road safety advocate at the helm, it won’t be easy for Chao’s successor to fight the auto industry’s relentless quest to make vehicles as cheap as possible, even if it comes at the expense of human lives — but for the sake of our nation’s road users, we need a champion now more than ever.

Countless missed opportunities

But perhaps some of the worst legacies of the Chao years have to do with what her DOT didn’t do — and advocates are especially anxious to see Biden’s pick snatch up those dropped batons.

“There are just so many missed opportunities,” said Osborne. “[Chao] really failed to to participate in some of the most exciting trends from other nations, like using GIS [geographic information systems] to figure out how people get where they’re going, whether they drive or not…And then there’s the [failure to] understand that our current federal transportation program was formulated 70 years ago, updated 40 years ago to include transit, and barely updated since. No federal program should remain the same for that long.”

Given how long the fundamental agenda of the USDOT has been allowed the stagnate, the greatest mandate facing Chao’s successor may be this: crafting a bold new vision for our transportation future that recognizes how powerfully the activities of his, her or their department impacts every single aspect of U.S. life.

“One of the things that’s caused us so much trouble in this country is the DOT’s insistence on pretending that transportation is a closed system,” Osborne added. “We need to set up a transportation landscape that doesn’t reward people at any level of government for ignoring those connections. If your community thinks it’s important to put housing a long drive away from grocery stores, banks, and jobs, they need to understand the consequences of that choice, and that no tools the [DOT] can give them can [fix it]. We must provide cities and states the evidence and the tools they need to avoid that error — and this office has the capacity to do that.”

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