The inauguration of President Joseph Biden will bring with it an entirely new cabinet, overseeing agencies under the control of the executive branch, and this will include a new secretary of transportation. As Biden indicated last month, the new president has tapped former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg for the post, to succeed Secretary Elaine Chao.
Odds are the role and scope of oversight of the secretary of transportation are a little murky to the casual news watcher, because this cabinet-level position has rarely been front and center barring some national emergency. News broadcasts don’t usually have the air time for lengthy expositions—and car magazines don’t usually, either. (But times are changing, and now we do).
Since the creation of this cabinet-level post in 1966, the appointment of new secretaries of transportation has usually coincided with new presidential terms. Not always, but often. It’s a cabinet role that’s traditionally been among the earliest and easiest to confirm, too. The role has grown to encompass more and more aspects of our daily life, eclipsing its original sphere of agencies.
Starting from a big picture vantage point, the secretary of transportation heads the Department of Transportation, which oversees 13 other agencies. Some of them will certainly sound familiar to readers of car magazines, like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), while others like the Office of Inspector General (IOG) or the Maritime Administration (MARAD) may be less familiar. The agencies under the purview of the Department of Transportation also include the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), in addition to a few others.
The secretary of transportation also oversees and helps to shape policy that promotes an economical and efficient system of national transportation, in line with the objectives and direction of the president’s administration. This means the secretary interacts and receives policy direction from the president and his administration, while also managing the agencies that comprise the department. Before this cabinet-level position was instituted in 1966, it was performed by the under-secretary of commerce for transportation. The creation of a cabinet-level post combined the growing number of agencies with authority over land, sea and air transport into a unified, vertical command structure.
The Department of Transportation absorbed a number of agencies in its early years, created Amtrak, and carved NHTSA out of the Federal Highway Administration.
The secretary of transportation’s duties also includes the implementation and oversight of federal projects and programs that involve different means of travel, and relations with the various private companies contracted by the department to carry out building projects. In addition, the secretary also has to deal with budgetary issues of the legislative branch, even though the DOT is an agency under the executive branch. The secretary is also the 14th person in the line of presidential succession.
If it sounds like the incoming secretary of transportation will have a lot on his plate, that’s because he will, thought there may be some consolation in the fact that the 13 agencies under the DOT have their own heads as well, allowing the secretary to exercise more of a managerial role and to draw on their existing policies and programs rather than generating entirely new policy from scratch. Another moderating factor is that the scope of the DOT is a federal one; U.S. states have their own departments of transportation that deal with purely internal state matters and projects.
When it comes to the issues the new secretary is likely to face, perhaps we won’t surprise you by saying that the most pressing items this year are expected to be related to the operation of airlines, rail, and other forms of public transport in what is now the absolute peak of the coronavirus pandemic. The airline industry experienced a massive disruption of business in the months following the outbreak, and the future of the industry and others is likely to be the number one issue for the secretary for at least the next two years.
Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources.
In the Biden-Harris administration, we will make righting these wrongs an imperative.
Of course, the airline industry does not exist solely within the borders of the U.S. or within its own regulatory vacuum, and is very much tied to conditions and a number of formal and informal regulations in international travel. One of the more pressing subjects the secretary and the head of the FAA will inherit is the question of health passports for passengers, which is something that different heads of state have had very different opinions about. The rollout of the first several vaccines is already tied to increasing calls for screening of passengers and requirements for proof of negative COVID-19 tests, which is an issue that is not likely to go away anytime soon.
Needless to say, leadership on this issue as it concerns U.S. airlines will fall on the shoulders of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation, but plenty of coordination will be needed with other nations and airline organizations in the European Union and in several other countries. Urgency of this issue is expected to be multiplied by the U.K. strain of the virus, amid increasing lockdowns in several EU states, and amid expectations that it will become the dominant strain in the U.S.
As it concerns cars, the first issue we expect the incoming secretary to face is greenhouse gas emissions and the role of the U.S. in curbing its share of their global output. Hours since taking office, President Biden reentered the U.S. into the Paris Climate Agreement from which the previous administration had withdrawn, and while the EPA is a separate executive agency, there is still a role for the secretary and the DOT to play in curbing emissions by encouraging, through concrete actions, electric vehicle adoption through the building of more EV charging stations. Mayor Buttigieg has spoken on the issue a number of times since being named as the nominee, including calling for dramatically increased spending to build 500,000 new EV charging stations by 2030, as outlined as a goal by President Biden.
To meet the climate crisis, we must put millions of new electric vehicles on America’s roads. It’s time to build public charging infrastructure powered by clean energy and make it available in all parts of this country.
Another issue that the Secretary will be tasked to oversee is that of road and rail infrastructure, an area largely neglected for more than a few prior administrations. Unfortunately, after having been moved to the back burner for so long, the next four years will be a make-or-break period during which the current administration may have no choice but to upgrade the country’s road network in a way that’s is also climate-friendly, in accordance with its stated priorities. Of course, road infrastructure has long been an issue of funding.
“As @PresElectBiden has said, it’s time to stop just talking about infrastructure and to actually start building an infrastructure,” Buttigieg tweeted in late December.
Another, rather narrower but rapidly emerging issue on which we expect the current secretary to be asked to provide leadership is that of autonomous cars—or more accurately, for the moment, semi-autonomous driver-assist systems.
While the subject of autonomous vehicle driving permits has been within the purview of individual states (legislation was hastily adopted by U.S. states and territories about a decade ago), NHTSA as an agency still plays a role in the types of technologies that are permitted to be offered in U.S.-market vehicles. This is why, for example, you may have heard about dot-matrix- and laser-headlight tech in the past few years. Those issues of automotive safety tech still fall under the direction of and are regulated by NHTSA. NHTSA has certainly played a role in the investigation of accidents where the use of semi-autonomous technology was suspected or confirmed, but it has played a more hands-off role in allowing some systems into the market.
For instance, NHTSA has indicated that it will closely monitor Tesla’s rollout of what it calls Full Self-Driving, which is considered to be a Level 2 system by most industry observers while advertising itself as something greater. NHTSA, we expect, will be in a position to take a more defined stance as more semi-autonomous systems, including those offering Level 3 and Level 4 autonomy appear in cars over the next four years.
The issues of autonomous vehicle tech, of course, won’t be confined to Tesla, as there are other companies pushing the envelope when it comes to robo-taxi technology. In the next four years we’re likely to see more rollouts of Level 4 robo-taxis on a wider scale, beyond the few parts of the San Francisco Bay Area in which tech giants are currently eyeing.
Needless to say, this cabinet-level post will face some of the most pressing challenges of the next four years, with or without the backdrop and the tremendous toll of the pandemic on the national transport infrastructure and policy.
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