Q&A with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao

August 18, 2020Mass Transit Magazine

The United States’ top transportation official discusses USDOT’s approach and response to the pandemic and how non-pandemic priorities continue to move forward.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted priorities in every business sector, as well as the day-to-day lives of people. At the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), the pandemic intensified efforts to uphold the department’s mission of ensuring the nation’s transportation system remains safe and operational.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao spoke with Mass Transit to share how the department has met the challenges of the pandemic while carrying its normal workload and partnered with transportation industry stakeholders, including transit agencies, intercity rail and commuter rail, to make sure they are supported in their efforts to do the same.

The U.S. transportation system is a lifeline for the nation and, as Secretary Chao describes below, the department implemented every available option to preserve this and will continue to engage with stakeholders to provide the relief and support needed.


With the initial spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, many areas of the U.S. were covered under some form of shelter-in-place order and day-to-day movement for many people dramatically dropped or stopped completely. As Secretary of Transportation, how did you begin to address a situation like this?

Following President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration on March 13, 2020, the U.S. Department of Transportation has focused on keeping America’s transportation system safe and operational. The nation’s transportation systems are always vitally important and even more so during a crisis like COVID-19. Groceries must get to stores. Medical supplies must get to hospitals. Many healthcare workers and other essential personnel rely upon public transportation to get to their jobs. So, the department worked 24/7 to do everything possible to ensure that goods and people were able to get where they needed to go. The mantra was and is “anticipate, respond quickly, be nimble and be creative.”

The department’s Federal Transit Administration (FTA) made available $25 billion to transit systems across the country in record time, as well as $1 billion to Amtrak. The department also distributed 100 million masks to transportation workers, including transit workers.

The department pulled every lever – including funding, regulatory relief and more – to ensure that America’s transportation system could continue to serve as a lifeline for the nation.


As a follow up, you served as Secretary of Labor following two tumultuous times in recent U.S. history – the economic impact following the September 11th terrorist attacks and the financial crisis of 2007-2008. Were there lessons learned from those situations that applied to how you approached priorities as Secretary of Transportation during this pandemic?

Oh, sure. Experience is an asset. My career spans the public, private and non-profit sector, including CEO and president of the United Way of America. The United Way experience, which included disaster response and relief, was especially helpful in learning how to deal with emergencies. One of the critical lessons learned was the importance of working through the practical details of getting assistance directly into the hands of the people who need it most.

For example, in the months following Sept. 11, 2001, the American economy was hard hit. Between September 2001 and May 2002, 1,446,000 Americans lost their jobs. So, the Department of Labor awarded grants to assist unemployed workers across all industries. These grants, called National Emergency Grants, were immediately made available to states hardest hit by the attacks and its repercussions.

Then, in the fall of 2005, our country was hit by one of the worst hurricane seasons in U.S. history. The Department of Labor responded vigorously to the damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Nearly $380 million in grants were provided to assist with temporary cleanup work and provide benefits and services to those displaced by the storms. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), the Wage and Hour Division and other agencies deployed personnel to the region to provide safety training and education and to ensure that workers’ rights were upheld. Among other things, the department set up an emergency response hotline, so people in the Gulf Coast region could call in and learn how to access these benefits. I called the hotline myself to make sure it was up and operational before we announced it.


One of the early action items implemented by the administration was the expanded eligibility of federal assistance available under the FTA’s Emergency Relief Program. How will the administration work to ensure transit agencies continue to have flexibility as they continue their efforts to combat the spread of the virus and shift toward recovery mode?

Every day, the FTA works closely with state and local transit providers across the country to free up resources to help them deal with COVID-19. FTA Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams and her team have been doing an outstanding job.

As you mentioned, even before the CARES Act, the FTA initiated steps in March 2020 to make more resources available to local transit authorities to fund cleaning efforts and protect frontline workers to reduce the spread of COVID-19. If a governor declared an emergency and the department concurred, the FTA Emergency Relief Program allowed transit agencies in those states to use their urban and rural transit formula funding to pay up to 80 percent, and subsequently 100 percent, of the cost of activities aimed at containing the virus. The FTA then increased this share to 100 percent to be consistent with the CARES Act. This action unlocked billions of dollars to keep transit systems safe for riders and operators. Transit agencies can request additional relief from federal requirements by making a request through the FTA’s Emergency Relief Docket. We streamlined access to decision-makers by establishing FTAResponse@dot.gov to ensure the most critical requests received the promptest attention. So far, FTA has responded to more than 1,100 questions and requests for relief from transit providers.

As our country charts a path forward to recovery, we’ll continue to listen and engage with transit industry stakeholders, the workforce and riders to provide them with the relief and support they need.


The CARES Act provided USDOT with more than $36 billion in additional funding for various industries, including $25 billion for the transit industry and $1 billion for Amtrak. There was an extremely short timeframe between when the law was enacted to when the funds had to be available. Can you share a little bit of what occurred behind the scenes and what was required by USDOT staff to make that happen?

It was all-hands-on-deck, working around-the-clock to get the job done and get those funds out the door. The department now has a new standard for what is possible. On March 27, 2020, President Trump signed the CARES Act into law, which made $25 billion dollars available to transit systems and $1 billion to Amtrak to help save jobs and respond to COVID-19.

Under the law, Congress gave the department seven days to implement CARES Act funding – a feat that many thought was impossible. FTA met that challenge head on and made funding available a full day before the deadline that Congress gave us. This was a lot of work completed in an extremely short timeframe. We recognized the importance of getting that critical funding out quickly to maintain operations for transit agencies and Amtrak so that those who are fighting COVID-19 – healthcare workers, grocery store clerks, police, fire and more – continue to get safely to and from their critical posts and ultimately help in our economic recovery.

Our work continues and FTA is working closely with transit providers to provide resources and rapid responses.


Safety has been a chief concern during this pandemic – safety of employees and safety of users on various transportation modes – is there more that should or could be done to ensure safety?

Improving safety is a never-ending quest at USDOT. Safety is always our top priority. Instilling public trust and confidence in the safety of our transportation systems will be critical in our economic recovery. Airlines, Amtrak, passenger rail and transit agencies have significantly ramped up cleaning protocols. Transit agencies, in particular, have stepped up. Many are now boarding passengers through the back of the bus to protect operators, installing dividers between drivers and passengers, improving disinfection procedures, increasing cleaning regimes, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to both operators and riders and enforcing social distancing requirements for riders by adding capacity.

As mentioned earlier, at the federal level, we’ve distributed more than 100 million cloth facial coverings to America’s transportation sector – including 14.4 million for mass transit, passenger rail workers and riders. More than 2,200 transit agencies have received a shipment of reusable face coverings. Under the CARES Act, funding is available to support expenses like enhanced cleaning measures and cleaning supplies, maintenance, staff overtime and hiring additional cleaning crews, all to keep the traveling public safe.

But we also want to let Americans know that they too have a role to play. Passengers should wear facial coverings and practice social distancing when they can. They should wash their hands frequently and practice good hygiene. We’re all in this together.


Efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus have justifiably shifted priorities for everyone, but USDOT was working on several initiatives prior to the arrival of the pandemic in the U.S.Looking toward the second half of the year, do you anticipate being able to advance non-pandemic initiatives?

Over the past few months, the world’s focus has, appropriately, been on COVID-19. But our mission at USDOT remains ensuring our nation has the safest and most efficient transportation system in the world. The department has been able to move forward with its normal workload, as well as meet the challenges of COVID-19.

We have continued to press ahead with substantial investments in infrastructure. Under this administration, the department has issued more than $20 billion in discretionary grants to fund critical infrastructure projects across the country. Under FTA’s Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program, the Trump Administration has advanced funding for 35 new CIG projects throughout the nation, totaling approximately $8.5 billion in funding commitments.

The department is working to demystify and speed up the environmental permitting process, such as simplifying the application process and implementing One Federal Decision, as well as enhancing the federal permitting dashboard to improve data accuracy, accountability and usability. We’re also focused on reducing red tape. To date, the USDOT has saved the economy and consumers $90 billion in regulatory costs.

We’ll continue to push forward with these priorities front-and-center, building upon the strong foundation this administration has created in our first term.


USDOT recently announced the first participants in the Automated Vehicle Transparency and Engagement for Safe Testing (AV TEST) Initiative. Why is this the time to launch an AV initiative and, more generally, as technology across several sectors evolves at a rapid pace, what role should government play to balance regulatory and safety oversight while supporting experimentation?

It’s always a good time to seek progress. AV technology could one day save many lives and improve the quality of life for millions of Americans by significantly expanding their mobility options. This would be a tremendous advancement for our nation’s transportation systems.

On June 15, 2020, we announced nine companies and eight states have signed on as the first participants in a new department initiative to improve the safety and testing transparency of automated driving systems, the AV TEST Initiative. Through this voluntary initiative, the department is creating a formal platform for federal, state and local governments to coordinate and share information in a standard way.

AV technology holds the potential to save thousands of lives annually, and improve quality of life through reduced traffic congestion, increased productivity and environmental benefits. AVs also hold the potential to restore mobility for millions of people who face transportation challenges, such as people with disabilities and older adults. Progress is being made, but there still lies a long road ahead. The biggest challenge of all will be addressing public concern about the safety, security and privacy of fully automated vehicles. The department’s AV TEST Initiative aims to address just that by improving transparency and safety in testing.


As a final question, the FAST Act is set to expire at the end of September and infrastructure investment is again at the legislative forefront. What long-term view would you like to see for infrastructure investment in the United States?

The president believes very firmly that infrastructure should be a bipartisan effort. Each year, USDOT alone gives about $70 billion to states for various infrastructure projects. But we need a thoughtful, long-term plan to address the infrastructure needs of our country.

The FAST Act’s authorization presents another vehicle to address infrastructure. We should be thinking strategically and long-term so that we can truly address the infrastructure needs of our country and increase our economic competitiveness and productivity.

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