Members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee asked some very good questions about the Donald Trump administration’s future transportation policy Wednesday. They wanted to know the administration’s positions on privatizing and modernizing the air traffic control system. They had questions about tunnel, highway, and commuter rail projects around the country. They asked about rural infrastructure, federal permitting, and transportation grants and loans. But mostly, the senators wanted to hear about the Trump administration’s highly anticipated national infrastructure investment plan, one of the president-elect’s most eagerly anticipated initiatives.
But transportation secretary nominee Elaine Chao wasn’t giving up anything, maintaining instead the incoming administration’s disturbing penchant for keeping secrets about their policy plans. Exactly how Trump plans to spend $1 trillion or more to restore American infrastructure to its once enviable world-class status remains a mystery.
Chao did offer a multitude of platitudes about how she would run the department. She would seek national consensus on controversial issues like air control privatization and driverless cars, she would work with Congress, she would make decisions based on sound science and data (a refreshing departure, at least, from the antediluvian postures of some other nominees). She also alluded frequently to her recent pre-hearing conversations with senators, with comments like, “you and I discussed that during my courtesy visit.” But she made little attempt to shed light on what was discussed behind those closed doors, or on what the Trump administration would actually do on the transportation front.
Florida’s Bill Nelson, the committee’s ranking Democrat, wondered how Chao would handle the controversy over privatizing air traffic control, especially given that the Defense Department and the aerospace industries are opposing this plan even as other business groups line up behind it.
“I would like to get confirmed first,” Chao said. “It’s a huge issue that needs a national consensus.” Chao answered Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar’s concerns about air safety, rural broadband, reducing pilot fatigue, and even snowmobiles, with a well-practiced, “I look forward to working with you on those issues if I am confirmed.”
Michigan Democrat Gary Peters got a bit more out of Chao. He learned that the former deputy secretary of transportation would be glad to work with him on self-driving cars. “Technology is outstripping the consumer’s ability to understand and accept the technology,” she said, noting that a “national discussion” on the issue would help give consumers greater comfort with vehicles.
Peters was the only member of the committee to press her about any aspect of her eight-year tenure as George W. Bush’s secretary of labor. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Chao suspended the Davis-Bacon Act that requires that contractors and subcontractors match local wage rates on federally-funded projects. He wanted Chao to commit to upholding Davis-Bacon for all future transportation contracts. She defended her Katrina decision, saying it was made during extraordinary circumstances. “Davis-Bacon is the law of the land unless Congress changes it,” she said.
Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, also challenged Chao. He wanted to hear how the nominee would pay for rail safety upgrades that require “real investment with public resources, not just tax credits.” He pointed to the need for investment in Positive Train Control, a rail collision avoidance system. He asked whether Chao would hold passenger rail companies to a 2018 deadline to install the equipment. Chao promised to look at the question—once she received a briefing on the technology.
Blumenthal retorted: “I hope the promise is not to be briefed but to take action. We’ve seen in the Northeast the consequences of the failure to implement it.” He added that recent disastrous rail accidents, which include a 2015 Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people and injured 200, “could have been stopped with PTC.”
In her opening statement, Chao did underline a commitment to safety, and to Trump’s often-stated pledge to stimulate private investment in transformative infrastructure projects, noting that the federal government does not have the resources “to do it all.” She told the senators: “Public-private partnerships would allow the federal government to take “full advantage of the estimated trillions in capital that equity firms, pension funds, and endowments can invest.”
But Chao offered no further inkling of how such rhetoric might translate into an actual action plan—beyond assuring senators that a task force would be assembled to devise an “ambitious, futuristic, and comprehensive” proposal. All would be revealed, she seemed to suggest, after the inauguration.
Lawmakers eager for new details about Trump’s public-private partnership vision did not mask their disappointment. “A lot of states are having trouble meeting their [federal] match, much less figuring out how to cobble together a P3,” said West Virginia Republican Shelly Moore Capito, using the shorthand for public-private partnerships. She also wondered what incentives the administration will offer to encourage private dollars to go to less economically developed areas—a key element of any transportation strategy predicated on private-sector involvement.
Chao did not explicitly rule out increased federal funding. Pressed by freshman New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan for a commitment to support existing TIGER grants and TIFIA loan programs, Chao acknowledged that federal lawmakers are keen supporters of those mechanisms, but declined to say whether the administration would boost their modest funding.
Yet when Republican Todd Young, of Indiana, asked what Congress could expect beyond “a bold plan,” Chao, savvy Washington operative that she is, called his bluff. She acknowledged that new revenue streams would have to be considered, adding that, “Whether groups on either side of the aisle would agree to these new revenue streams is something that we would have to talk about.”
It was another confirmation hearing that, yet again, gave senators no more from an elusive Trump nominee than they had going into the session. Chao positioned herself to disclose exactly nothing, except a sterling résumé (a rarity among Trump nominees); agreeing to furnish Congress 30- and 180-day department progress reports; and commitments to visit committee members’ home states.
This less-than-satisfying turn of events is perhaps what led Bill Nelson to wrap up the three-hour hearing with some plain speaking about what he called an alarming information gap. “To get these infrastructure projects done with federal funding, we need to know what the administration is proposing, except [you’re being] shackled by the [Trump] White House; you can’t release any of the proposals for federal funding,” Nelson complained.
Trump has promised an “ambitious, futuristic, and comprehensive” transportation program, one that will deliver $1 trillion in 21st century infrastructure improvements. Perhaps someone in the bowels of Trump Tower is working furiously to fill in the blanks. Or not. Whatever the case, Chao has left the Senate, and the American people, with more questions than answers on how the administration intends to revitalize this critical economic sector.