Transportation vacancies, challenges await Trump

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Just days from when President-elect Donald Trump is scheduled to take office, he has yet to make appointments for some posts of high interest to automakers.

President-elect Donald Trump has selected former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to lead the U.S. Transportation Department.

While Trump has selected former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to lead the U.S. Transportation Department and Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, he has yet to build the remainder of his transportation team, including leaders for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration.

Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said the president-elect already has signaled that he will likely take a radically different approach to auto regulation than President Barack Obama.

Nerad cited Trump’s selection of Pruitt, a climate-change skeptic, to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as evidence of the likely shift in attitude in Washington toward positions that are more favorable to automakers.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator-designate Scott Pruitt meets with Senate Environment and Public Works Committee member Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2017.

“President-elect Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Scott Pruitt to be EPA administrator is a signal that the Trump administration will likely revisit the emissions/fuel economy rules recently ‘finalized’ by the Obama administration in the days following Trump’s election,” he said. “Pruitt is a skeptic on human-caused global warming, and as Oklahoma attorney general he sued the EPA over additional regulation of coal-fired generating plants, so he is likely to be sympathetic to an alteration of the emission rules that will be more favorable to the industry.”

Trump has appointed a team to coordinate the transportation department’s transition, but he has not given any indication publicly of who he is considering for the role of NHTSA or FHWA administrator, who will both serve under Chao.

Wade Newton, director of communications of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said carmakers are hoping that Trump’s choice for NHTSA focuses on less contentious auto regulations than the Obama administration has pursued.

“Whomever the administrator ends up being, we would urge them to focus on the areas where we can make the greatest road safety gains,” he said in an email. “Driver error, impaired driving and further increasing safety belt use are some of our most pressing issues.”

In a questionnaire Chao submitted to the Senate Commerce Committee, which will consider her nomination, she said her priority will be “to maintain a culture of good stewardship on behalf of the American people.”

“This means effective enforcement of safety measures; getting the most benefit from the department’s expenditures including strengthening its planning and acquisition practices; and preparing for the future by considering new technologies in our infrastructure,” Chao wrote.

Current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he hopes Trump will continue the bipartisan tradition that has been established at the transportation department, although the president-elect has eschewed the informal tradition of picking a member of the opposite party to serve as his initial transportation secretary.

“We’ve been fortunate over the 50 years of this department that we’ve been able to keep this department … it’s almost been Switzerland,” Foxx told reporters during an end-of-the-year briefing in Washington. “The bipartisan nature of transportation has continued even through this period of time, and I hope that also continues because, as I said when the president nominated me, there are no Democratic and Republican roads or transit systems or what have you.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing