Two weeks ago, President – elect Joe Biden announced he was nominating Pete Buttigieg to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT). Buttigieg is a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a one-time Democratic presidential candidate. He was generally considered to be an effective, innovative leader in South Bend; and unlike most of the other candidates, did seem to have some good ideas about infrastructure improvement.
As Secretary of Transportation, he will be charged with implementing Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan to promote renewable energy, provide access to electric vehicles, and modernize freight hubs and commuter corridors. Biden has referred to him as a “patriot and problem solver”; and his nomination has been praised by the American Trucking Associations. Other than that, however, it seems to me that he lacks the qualifications one might expect of the chief guru of the nation’s transportation infrastructure. This though, is not unusual. He will succeed Elaine Chao, a knowledgeable public servant whose primary qualification seemed to be that she is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. She was responsible for leading the unsuccessful infrastructure efforts of the Trump administration.
But exactly what is the Secretary of Transportation supposed to do? According to DOT, “The Office of the Secretary oversees the formulation of national transportation policy and promotes intermodal transportation. Other responsibilities range from negotiation and implementation of international transportation agreements, assuring the fitness of U.S. airlines, enforcing airline consumer protection regulations, issuance of regulations to prevent alcohol and illegal drug misuse in transportation systems and preparing transportation legislation.” The key agencies under the Secretary’s control are the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Maritime Administration, Surface Transportation Board, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Research and Innovative Technology Administration.
DOT has approximately 55,000 employees, and a 2021 budget of $89 Billion.
Managing this organization would be a challenge for anyone, and most of the secretaries have served their terms without too much visibility to the general public, either positive or negative. Probably the one who accomplished the most, or at least was the most visible during my five decades in the industry, was Drew Lewis. A 1980 Ronald Reagan selection, Lewis’ most visible actions occurred in 1981, when the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) threatened a shutdown of the entire national air system. Lewis led the negotiations which led to a tentative contract. The PATCO membership rejected it and went on strike. Viewing this as a violation of federal law, Lewis briefed President Reagan who gave the union members 48 hours to return to work. Thirteen hundred came back. The rest of the 13,000 controllers were fired. After leading a rebuild of the air traffic control system, Lewis went on to become Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad.
Obviously, the Secretary of Transportation can accomplish only what the president allows him or her to. It seems to me though, that if the nominee had some solid transportation experience and visibility in the industry, more could be accomplished. I realize I am sounding politically naïve, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a DOT led by someone who was at least recognizable in the transportation industry?
Pete Buttigieg may do a wonderful job, and I wish him well. My fervent hope is that he will take control of, and try to correct the many shortcomings we have in our national transportation assets.
This will be our last blog for 2020, and I want to wish for the clients and friends of Worley a happier and healthier 2021. Stay well.