President-elect Donald J. Trump has picked Elaine L. Chao, a former Secretary of Labor and Deputy Transportation Secretary, as his choice to lead the Dept. of Transportation, one of the most critical federal posts for the construction industry.
Chao, whose selection Trump announced on Nov. 29, is likely to play an important role in developing the President-elect’s plan to boost infrastructure funding and selling it on Capitol Hill.
Chao’s nomination is subject to Senate approval. She is married to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), which cannot hurt her chances of Senate confirmation.
Senate commerce committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), whose panel will hold a confirmation hearing on Chao’s nomination, called her “very well qualified to lead the Dept. of Transportation as Secretary.”
Citing Chao’s background at Labor and DOT, Thune also said she “has already shown she can work effectively with members on both sides of the aisle.”
Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Associated General Contractors of America, said via email that, assuming Chao is confirmed, “we are eager to work with her and her execute President-elect Trump's plans to make meaningful new investments in our transportation infrastructure, and to identify long-term and sustainable ways to pay for that new infrastructure.”
Turmail said that AGC also is seeking to find ways to further expedite federal reviews and permitting for transportation projects. He added, “No doubt her prior experience as a cabinet secretary and DOT official will prove invaluable.”
Pete Ruane, American Road & Transportation Builders Association president and CEO, said that with her executive-branch experience, "there will be little learning curve for Elaine Chao."
Trump said in a statement, “Secretary Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsive manner.”
Chao said, “The President-elect has outlined a clear vision to transform our country’s infrastructure, accelerate economic growth and productivity and crease good-paying jobs across the country.”
In the campaign, Trump proposed a $1-trillion, 10-year investment in infrastructure. A later posting on his transition office web page cited a $550-billion program for transportation projects, with no time period specified.
Trump advisers have said the $1-trillion plan would use private investment for project like toll highways that generate revenue. They also said attracting the needed amount of private equity for the program also would require $137 billion in tax credits.
Chao headed the Labor Dept. from 2001 to 2009, throughout the George W. Bush administration.
Her transportation positions included about two years as deputy DOT secretary, from 1989 to 1991. According to her LinkedIn page, Chao served for a year as chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission and, for the two previous years, she was deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration, a DOT agency.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.)—the key GOP player in that chamber on many construction issues—said in a statement: “From the start, it was my hope that President-elect Trump would select someone to run the Department of Transportation who has a background leading large organizations, knowledge of how Congress and the legislative process work and the right mixture of public and private experience necessary to oversee a bold agenda to transform America’s transportation and infrastructure systems for the 21st Century. “
He added, “Elaine Chao embodies these qualities.”
Current DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement: "Elaine Chao knows the Dept. of Transportation well, having previously served as its Deputy Secretary. She's also one of the nicest people I've met in Washington. I wish her luck in the confirmation process, and in the meantime, we will be working hard to ensure a smooth transition.”
Chao has some familiarity with the construction industry, through her work as a corportate director. She was on the board of directors of Parsons from January 2000 to January 2001 and has been a board member at aggregates company Vulcan Materials Co., Birmingham, Ala., since 2015.
At present, she is a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, a think tank, and also is a board member of News Corp. and Wells Fargo.
Story updated on Dec. 2 to include her position as a board member at Vulcan Materials Co.