Donald Trump's Transportation Secretary Pick Would Inherit Crumbling Roads And Robotic Cars

Elaine Chao has her work cut out for her.

Roads, bridges and tunnels across the United States are in disrepair. Tech giants are already rolling out self-driving vehicles in cities, sending regulators and insurance companies scrambling to write new rules. Ride-hailing apps are reshaping how passengers get around and how drivers are paid to shuttle them there.

Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for transportation secretary, has her work cut out for her. But her biggest challenge may be finding the money to do it all.

“If transportation becomes a priority in the Trump administration and they want to put together a big, bold bill and a big, bold plan, they will need money to fund it,” Ray LaHood, who served as President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary from 2009 to 2013, told The Huffington Post on Tuesday. “It’s one thing to have a big vision, it’s another to have a pretty big vision for how to fund it. The funding has always been the issue.”

Chao will take office amid one of the fastest-paced transformations of the transportation industry in almost a century.

Already, Trump’s $1 trillion proposed infrastructure plan ― panned by critics like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as a corporate welfare scam ― may not be enough to cover all the critical projects awaiting funding, according to new estimates by the American Society of Civil Engineers. The cost of fixing all the roads, bridges, public transit, railroads, energy systems, schools, public parks, ports, airports, dams and other facilities is likely closer to $3.6 trillion.

And that’s just the maintenance backlog.

Chao, who served as labor secretary under President George W. Bush and deputy transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, will take office amid one of the fastest-paced transformations of the transportation industry in almost a century. Apple, Google, Uber, Tesla, General Motors and a bevy of other tech giants and automakers are producing autonomous driving systems. For years, Google has been testing its bug-like cars around its Mountain View, California, headquarters. In August, Uber began putting driverless SUVs on the road in Pittsburgh.

In October, Tesla vowed to send a car from Los Angeles to New York’s Times Square without ever having a driver touch the wheel. But unless regulations suddenly allow cars to drive themselves with no supervision, there will still be a person capable of driving in the car. That’s because transportation officials have been slow to hand down rules on self-driving technology, which is limited in scope and restricted to highways in a handful of states. Chao now inherits that responsibility.

“Autonomous vehicles are coming to America,” LaHood said. “And the Department of Transportation is smack-dab in the middle of rules and regulations around that.”

A Google employee stands next to a prototype of the company's self-driving vehicle during a media preview in Mountain Vi
A Google employee stands next to a prototype of the company's self-driving vehicle during a media preview in Mountain View, California, on Sept. 29, 2015.

Like her predecessors in the Obama administration, Chao seems unlikely to put major restrictions on ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. Last November, she made a speech supporting the business model pioneered by so-called “gig economy” services that classify workers as contractors instead of employees, skirting laws that would require them to provide certain employee benefits.

“Literally millions of people today participate in the digitally-enabled, peer-to-peer economy,” Chao said. “Despite its attraction for workers, however, some suggest the sharing economy is not a 21st century construct at all, but a new version of the 19th century ‘piece work’ economy. This ignores some basic realities, including who is working in the new economy, what type of work they are performing, and why.”

On Tuesday, Uber and Lyft ― the two biggest ride-hailing startups in the United States ― returned the favor. Uber, the $68 billion titan, applauded her “depth of knowledge on transportation issues.” Lyft, the industry’s struggling runner-up, congratulated Chao’s nomination and said it looked “forward to working with her on an array of transportation issues.”

“There has been a lot of concern in Silicon Valley that, outside of tax policy, the Trump Administration will be hostile to disruptive technology companies,” Dan Primack, a former top columnist at Fortune who is launching a new media startup, wrote in a post on the self-publishing platform Medium. “At least for those in the transportation sector, those fears may have just been allayed.”

Chao may have less influence over the future of electric cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Department of Transportation agency, handed down new rules this month requiring hybrid or electric vehicles ― which lack the rumbling noise of a combustion engine ― to have sound alerts so pedestrians can hear them approaching. The transportation secretary is unlikely to weigh in on electric cars unless gas prices are significantly higher than they are now, according to LaHood.

Still, Chao’s record on supporting the fossil fuel industry has drawn scorn from environmental groups. During her two-term tenure as labor secretary from 2001 to 2009, Chao gutted funding for coal mine safety regulations. Last year, she resigned from the board of Bloomberg Philanthropies after the foundation ramped up its campaign to end the use of coal, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), represents Kentucky, a major coal-producing state, and has blamed regulations for shrinking the industry.

She is the wrong choice to lead the transition to a green energy economy that will provide lasting jobs and protect the planet. Ben Schreiber, Friends of the Earth International

“Avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will require a radical reshaping of our transportation system to move us away from fossil fuels,” Ben Schreiber, climate and energy program director at the nonprofit Friends of the Earth International, said in a statement. “She is the wrong choice to lead the transition to a green energy economy that will provide lasting jobs and protect the planet.”

Trump, for his part, has repeatedly called climate change “a hoax,” threatened to pull out of the historic Paris climate accord and vowed to scrap the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s top tool for reducing carbon emissions. The president-elect’s transition team is stacked with oil and gas executives and climate science deniers, including Myron Ebell, who is overseeing the incoming leadership of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Chao, widely praised as one of Trump’s most competent choices so far, doesn’t provide much reassurance on that issue.

“Trump’s pick for transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, would be wise to convince her potential new boss that urgent action on climate change and innovation of public transit will protect American lives,” said Cassady Craighill, a spokeswoman for Greenpeace USA, before referencing Chao’s most recent post at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “Chao’s connection to institutions that manufacture climate denial, like the Heritage Foundation, requires the public demand she prioritize both public health and the impacts of climate change when managing our transportation infrastructure.”

Trump’s transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment.