Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Transport Topics during an exclusive interview March 31 that her agency stands ready to build on the actions it already has taken to help trucking support the country through the coronavirus crisis. She expressed optimism that the federal government could soon take steps to improve the nation’s infrastructure — perhaps through funds from the $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package — and praised the truck drivers who have taken to the roads to confront the challenges posed by the outbreak.
“I don’t think many Americans think about the supply chain much during ordinary times,” she said during a wide-ranging one-on-one discussion, “but now that phrase — the supply chain — is being talked about everywhere. So many more people now understand that it’s due to truckers and trucking companies that food shelves in a supermarket get stocked, or that gasoline stations are able to sell gasoline.”
Chao added, “All these products don’t appear by magic. We are able to live and take care of our families during this very special time because of the hard work of truckers throughout the country.”
She pointed to the specific steps her agency has taken to help the industry do that work — notably, temporary relief from certain hour-of-service requirements issued in mid-March by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, late-March declarations from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that provided temporary enforcement discretion for drivers transporting hazardous materials, such as gasoline and lithium batteries, as well as goods such as hand sanitizers. In addition, Hazmat drivers were given a 90-day reprieve from taking Hazmat refresher courses that come due every three years.
She also noted that FMCSA granted exceptions through June 30 for certain expired commercial driver licenses and learner’s permit medical certifications, and also issued guidance regarding compliance with drug and alcohol testing requirements during the COVID-19 crisis.
In addition, she credited the FMCSA’s interim chief for working with states to ensure that rest areas around the country remain open.
“We’ve heard from a lot of people in the industry about concerns that some states may close rest areas,” she said. “So I’ve had FMCSA acting Administrator Jim Mullen reach out and work with the state departments of transportation and other relevant entities to keep this critical infrastructure open, so that more carrier drivers have a safe place to rest.”
Chao noted that DOT and the trucking industry came together last month to persuade the state of Pennsylvania to reverse a decision to close rest areas there.
Looking ahead, Chao said the next big opportunity for DOT to help the transportation sector will come via the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which, in part, has provisions for helping businesses that can include trucking fleets. The bill, signed by President Donald Trump on March 27, is intended to help individuals and businesses weather the economic downturn brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of trucking companies are small businesses, and there are provisions in the CARES Act to provide assistance for those that are struggling,” she said. “And there are loan guarantees administered by the Treasury Department that will be available. They’ll become available in the coming days to larger commercial motor carriers that need assistance, as well.”
In addition, she noted that trucking companies can approach the Small Business Administration for loans that are being made available during the downturn.
“We hope that truckers and others can see that the U.S. Department of Transportation is looking out for their interests and helping the country regain our economic vitality and vibrancy,” she said.
A key aspect of that, she noted, is robust infrastructure. On this point, Chao is hopeful that a combination of actions already taken by DOT and an influx of funding from the CARES Act and, possibly, a new highway bill could bring a much-needed infusion of funding to rebuild the nation’s roads and bridges.
“I hear from truck drivers all the time,” she said. “You’re the first to know whether there’s a big pothole or whether some infrastructure is bulky and inferior. We hear all of that. So our administration will continue to make investments in rebuilding and repairing our country’s infrastructure.”
She noted that DOT in January made more than $900 million available through its Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grants program, along with $1 billion through its Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program, both of which target infrastructure development. And that’s on top of $70 billion the agency allocates to states and localities annually, she said.
Plus, before the virus outbreak, DOT was working with congressional leaders on legislation to replace the 2015 FAST Act highway bill — which expires Sept. 30 — and Chao noted that a reauthorization had been making its way through the proper channels.
“We have to be preparing for the reauthorization of the next highway bill,” she said. “The administration has a bill, and we are in the final stages of clearance within the administration. The legislation is much-needed, and it’s important to continue this highway program. Each mode of transportation is still working through the text.”
Chao added, “We expect to work with the Congress and industry — as we have been throughout this whole process — to gather information from the trucking industry, from the state departments of transportation, and various stakeholders about what would be an optimal reauthorization act.”
She added, “It’s got to be replaced, either in its current form through an extension, or there will be a greater discussion about what a future package would look like.”
Compare each of the presidential candidates’ plans for addressing America’s infrastructure needs. See our Candidate Infrastructure Tracker.
Chao also indicated that allocations from the CARES Act also could go to infrastructure.
“Let’s see what happens with the CARES Act, which has $2.2 trillion in it,” she said. “The monies have not gone out yet. Let’s see how that will help people. We hope it will help a lot. The Department of Transportation has a mandate to get out transit grant dollars, and we are hard at work. We’re going to meet the deadline to get that money out.”
She also is going to take next steps with the White House COVID-19 task force — of which DOT is a part — on continuing the fight against the virus’ spread.
“The task force’s focus has shifted to mitigation,” she said. “So the U.S. Department of Transportation’s major focus now is to ensure that the national transportation system continues to operate to allow for the free flow of health and other critical infrastructure workers, as well as the uninterrupted flow of food, health care products and other essential supplies.”
Underpinning all of this, she noted, are truckers, to whom she offered a word of thanks.
“I really want to give our sincere thanks to the trucking industry, with a special shout-out to America’s truck drivers for their heroic actions during this time,” Chao said. “I know that it has not been easy, but the whole country is just cheering on America’s truckers.
“I want the families and the loved ones for truck drivers to know that we’re thinking about them as well. We appreciate so much their support for their loved ones — the truck drivers — so that they can perform an essential service for our country during this critical time.”