Air Traffic Overhaul, Infrastructure Funding Top Considerations: Chao

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By Stephanie Beasley

The Trump administration will consult with members of Congress before taking a position on a contentious proposal to privatize the air traffic control system, according to Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for transportation secretary.

During a confirmation hearing with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Jan. 11, Chao said she was open to all ideas about how to improve the nation’s air traffic control system and was cognizant of those who supported and opposed a House proposal to transfer oversight of the ATC system from the FAA to a non-profit corporation run by national airspace users.

Chao, a former labor secretary and deputy transportation secretary, said the Trump administration had not made a decision on the issue and would consult with Congress, among others, in an effort to build a national consensus before taking an official position.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) backed a bill last year that would privatize the ATC system. It was reported out of committee but failed to advance to the House floor. The Senate passed its own reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration that would keep the ATC system under the agency’s control.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the Commerce Committee’s ranking member, said he continued to oppose the plan to privatize ATC given the uncertainty about how it would affect the relationship between the FAA and other federal agencies such as the Department of Defense.

Current spending authority for the FAA expires on Sept. 30.

Chao Urges Bold Public-Private Vision

Chao signaled she would generally be supportive of greater public-private partnerships in infrastructure. She called for a “bold new vision” for such partnerships and said that one of the Transportation Department’s major challenges would be to “unleash the potential for private investment in our nation’s infrastructure.”

Chao noted that the Highway Trust Fund that supports federal programs for surface transportation is bleeding out more money than it collects from user fees like federal fuel taxes and is expected to be bankrupt by 2021 unless it is infused with additional funding.

“We all know that the government doesn’t have the resources to do it all,” Chao told senators.

Chao is expected to help Trump shape a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that he has said that he will introduce within the first 100 days of his presidency. Several lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), recently said the promised plan could be introduced a little bit later than that.

Trump’s transition team has indicated that tax breaks for private companies that invest in public infrastructure projects will be a cornerstone of the plan.

“As we work together to develop the details of President Trump’s infrastructure plan, it is important to note the significant difference between traditional program funding and other innovative financing tools, such as public-private partnerships,” Chao said.

Nelson said he would like to see details of Trump’s infrastructure proposal within the first 30 days of the new administration. Chao said she could not commit to that timeline but planned to brief lawmakers on the plan as soon as possible.

Chao’s record at the Transportation Department under President George H.W. Bush gives some indication of how she might advise Trump to tackle funding issues, according to Anna Denecke, an associate at Blakey & Agnew LLC. Chao oversaw the release of the “Moving America” report in 1990, which stressed the need to relax federal restrictions on state and local governments’ abilities to raise their own funds and recommended greater use of public-private partnerships, Denecke said.

Approach to New Technologies

Advocates for the adoption of new transportation technologies are hopeful that Chao’s extensive experience at federal agencies will prove useful when it comes to asserting federal jurisdiction over transportation technology policy.

During the hearing committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) noted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently released guidelines on the deployment of self-driving cars but said he would be interested in further details about how Chao would help the Transportation Department keep pace with the rate of innovation in that area.

Industry stakeholders continue to voice concerns about the lack of a federal standard for automated vehicles as states move forward with laws dictating how self-driving cars should be tested and operated.

The patchwork of state laws also is a concern for drones, Chao said, adding that she would work to lay out policy that would ensure the safety of new technologies like self-driving cars and drones without hobbling innovation.

“The nominee ... is reason for hope in this era of stifling regulation and government overreach, as we believe she will choose progress over heavy-handed regulation, and work with our industry to find a way to let innovators create a safer driving experience,” Paul Brubaker, president and CEO of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation, said in a letter sent to the Commerce Committee.

When it comes to rail technology, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) pressed Chao to ensure railroads meet a Dec. 31, 2018 deadline to install anti-crash technology known as positive train control.

“I hope to get briefed on this,” Chao said. “And if there is a deadline, as you mentioned, of that particular date, I will look at it very seriously.”

Blumenthal responded: “You have promised. And I hope the promise, again, is not just to be briefed but also to take action. Because we’ve seen in the Northeast the consequences of the failure to implement it in a number of rail catastrophes that have happened.”

Path to Confirmation

Trump is expected to formally nominate Chao for the transportation secretary position soon after he takes office on Jan. 20. She is expected to sail through the confirmation process.

Thune said she is an ideal candidate and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he thinks she will be confirmed with a “nice, bipartisan vote.”

Chao was introduced at the Jan. 11 confirmation hearing by her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and joked that she would work to “lock in” his support over dinner.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington at sBeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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