In choosing Elaine L. Chao as his nominee to head the Dept. of Transportation, President-elect Donald J. Trump picked a former Cabinet secretary who has held senior positions at DOT and was a board member of two prominent construction industry firms.
As secretary, Chao can draw on her federal and private-sector background to play a role in pushing for Trump’s promised $1-trillion, 10-year infrastructure investment plan.
Chao, the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is expected to sail through confirmation. An industry source says the Trump transition team is seeking her quick approval. “Clearly, they’re going to want some early wins,” the source says. “They want to get her up and confirmed very, very early.”
The DOT secretary is a critical post for the construction industry. Congressional lawmakers and construction officials praised Trump’s choice. Senate commerce committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) called her “very well qualified” to lead DOT. She was Dept. of Labor secretary, from 2001 to 2008, and deputy DOT secretary, from 1989 to 1991. Chao also chaired the Federal Maritime Commission and was the No. 2 official at DOT’s Maritime Administration.
Her construction background includes a stint as a Parsons board member, from 2000 to 2001, and a seat on the board of aggregates company Vulcan Materials Co., Birmingham, Ala., since 2015.
Pete Ruane, American Road & Transportation Builders Association president and CEO, said, “There will be little learning curve for Elaine Chao” given her experience.
Announcing his selection of Chao on Nov. 29, Trump said her “extensive record of strong leadership and her expertise are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.”
Construction officials are thirsting for more details about Trump’s infrastructure proposal. In October, Trump advisers in a white paper said the $1-trillion plan would use private investment for projects that generate revenue, such as toll highways. They also said attracting the needed private equity would require $137 billion in tax credits. One of the paper’s authors is investment firm executive Wilbur Ross, Trump’s choice to be Dept. of Commerce secretary.
Jay Hansen, National Asphalt Pavement Association executive vice president, says Chao’s main challenge will be working with the factions in Congress to get the Trump infrastructure bill approved. Hansen adds, “She’ll be the point person.” Thune says Chao “has already shown she can work effectively with members on both sides of the aisle.”
But another industry official notes that, within the new administration, the Treasury Dept. may be a driving force in moving the proposal if the Trump team uses tax credits or the repatriation of U.S. companies’ overseas earnings to pay for the infrastructure plan. On Nov. 30, Trump named financier Steven Mnuchin his choice for Treasury secretary.
In other announcements, Trump selected former surgeon and presidential candidate Benjamin Carson to lead the Housing and Urban Development Dept. and retired Marine Corps General James Mattis as Dept. of Defense secretary.