Donald Trump will nominate Elaine Chao as head of the Department of Transportation, Politico reported Tuesday. It’s a straightforward and conventional appointment in a staffing process that has thus far been characterized by chaos, outrage, and public fighting. As ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis put it on Twitter, the new education secretary is against public schools, the new attorney general is against the Voting Rights Act, and the new (probable) HUD secretary is against the Fair Housing Act. Breathe a measured sigh of relief: The next transportation secretary is not against transportation.
Chao served as secretary of labor during all eight years of the George W. Bush administration and had high-level federal transportation jobs for a few years in the late 1980s. (She is also married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, which could make things interesting down the road.)
All told, she has had a classic Washington career, moving between government positions, banks, and think tanks. She immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan when she was 8 years old, grew up on Long Island, and worked for a time as an investment banker in California.
As far as transportation goes, Chao has had a fairly open mind. She acknowledged decades ago that the major era of highway construction was over and should give way to one focused on solving traffic congestion. In George H.W. Bush’s Department of Transportation, she helped fund an early iteration of GPS in Los Angeles. And as secretary of labor under George W. Bush, she praised the potential of public transit. “Coordinated transportation is one of the most important, and perhaps least appreciated, components of a transition from a life of unemployment and dependency for Americans to one of employment and productivity,” she said at a luncheon in 2004.
The position at DOT, like that of HUD, is often portrayed as a diversity hire. But it could take on an outsized importance during a Trump Administration if the president succeeds in spending a trillion dollars on infrastructure.
Obama’s first transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, for example, was a major proponent of diverting DOT spending away from highways (many of which are boondoggles, the least of which costs many times as much as the hated streetcars) to other transportation and infrastructure projects. He supervised the creation of the TIGER grant program, which injected billions in federal money into local, multimodal projects, and was reauthorized repeatedly by Congress. He used his stature to defend pedestrian and bicycle improvements that Republicans (of which LaHood is one) often consider a waste of money.
Besides advocacy and spending, Chao’s other big role would involve coordinating big projects. Current DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, has been a big help to officials in a fragmented tri-state area and is trying to expedite the construction of a desperately needed new tunnel between New York and New Jersey.
Both of Obama’s DOT secretaries helped moderate a long-standing federal spending bias toward roads and rural areas and away from transit and cities. Chao hasn’t spoken publicly on those issues in years.
McClatchy reported that Trump and Chao met at Trump Tower last week. They “conversed about labor and transportation issues with a particular focus on America’s long-term infrastructure needs, and reducing or eliminating burdensome regulations,” according to the transition team.
The likely outcome, it seems, is that Chao will not be the kind of reactionary nut that Trump has appointed to head the departments of justice or education. But the investments she favors may more quietly reflect conservative tenets like heavy highway spending, disregard for energy efficiency, and the denial of funds to transit and pedestrian projects in densely populated areas.