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Nov. 29 — President-elect Donald Trump is turning to a seasoned Washington insider to help him carry out an ambitious $1 trillion infrastructure agenda.
Elaine Chao, Trump’s pick for secretary of transportation, would help the administration shape infrastructure investment proposals that could include tax breaks for private investors in projects and the creation of an infrastructure bank, Trump’s transition team said.
Chao served as labor secretary under President George W. Bush and was deputy transportation secretary for President George H.W. Bush. She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who said he will not recuse himself from voting on her confirmation.
“Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner,” Trump said in a statement. “She has an amazing life story and has helped countless Americans in her public service career.”
So far, senators on both sides of the aisle seem supportive of Chao’s nomination.
Incoming Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) congratulated her and said he hopes she’s willing to work with Democrats to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs.
“Senate Democrats have said that if President-elect Trump is serious about a major infrastructure bill, backed by real dollars and not just tax credits and without cutting other programs like health care and education, that we are ready to work with his administration,” Schumer said in a statement.
Third-ranking Senate Republican and Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said Chao is a good fit for the position and noted her long record of accomplishment.
“She’s held a number of positions both inside and outside of government and in every circumstance she’s distinguished herself and done a great job,” Thune told reporters Nov. 29.
Jack Schenendorf, who served on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff for 25 years and was chief of staff from 1995 to 2001, called Chao the “full package.” She knows her way around the Department of Transportation building, is politically savvy and has great connections, he told Bloomberg BNA. Chao could be a real asset to the Trump Administration, Schenendorf said.
Transportation industry groups also had high praise for Chao. American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear, who worked alongside Chao as assistant labor secretary, highlighted her extensive policy background. He said Trump could not have picked a more qualified, experienced and dedicated individual to serve in the role.
Chao understands issues affecting the industry, like the safe and efficient movement of freight, Spear said.
Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, also said it was reassuring to see a nominee with such broad institutional experience. He noted that as deputy transportation secretary Chao worked extensively on the 1990 Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill as well as a “transformative” surface transportation proposal later enacted into the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.
A five-year surface transportation reauthorization law went into effect late last year but negotiations on the next surface transportation bill are likely to begin before the Trump administration concludes in 2020. The administration and Congress also will need to hash out an aviation reauthorization bill before current FAA spending authority expires on Sept. 30, 2017.
Eno Center President and CEO Robert Puentes said Chao’s experience at the Labor Department also might give her unique insight into workforce challenges in the transportation industry.
The U.S. Travel Association called her a “strong and capable” choice with a clear understanding of the urgent need to invest in the nation’s infrastructure. The group said it was hopeful that as transportation secretary, Chao would put forth proposals to improve airport conditions, in particular, within the first 100 days of the new administration.
Port operators responded positively to Chao’s nomination due to her past roles as deputy administrator for the Maritime Administration and as chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission in the 1980s.
“If confirmed, we look forward to working closely with Secretary Chao, particularly in regard to building on the multimodal freight infrastructure funding and policy issues in the [Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act], as our nation continues to develop a 21st century multimodal freight network that address the complex challenges of a global supply chain,” Jean Godwin, executive vice president and general counsel for the American Association of Port Authorities, said in a statement.
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