Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
One contender, Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, seems to understand the importance of multimodal options.
Whispers about who the new U.S. Secretary of Transportation might be under President-elect Donald Trump aren’t exactly fueling a media frenzy, but it’s an important question. Whoever gets the gig will preside over a mobility revolution that could have a big impact on the lives of ordinary Americans. Several names are swirling about, from mayors to governors to heads of state DOTs. There could even be a dark horse candidate from the private sector.
One possibility is Congressman John Mica, the outgoing Republican representative from central Florida, who has been vocal in his desire to clutch the DOT reins. Mica once chaired the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, co-authoring the MAP-21 transportation authorization bill back in 2012. He is credited with pushing highway and airport projects forward in his home state.
But DOT is not all about roads and runways: The agency’s charge is to ensure “fast, safe, efficient, accessible and convenient transportation” that “enhances the quality of life” for all Americans. Practically speaking, the DOT can no longer be the highway-building juggernaut it was in decades past. Laying pavement for cars and trucks will matter a lot for the foreseeable future, but so will infrastructure supporting passenger and freight rail, air travel, mass transit, and emerging technologies like autonomous vehicles and private ride-hailing companies.
Does Mica pass the test of multimodal appreciation? Not if you think public funding for mass transportation is important. Mica tried to kick public transit out of the highway trust fund back in 2012, and his record on passenger rail is mixed. In his home state of Florida, he pushed the controversial SunRail commuter line to fruition and has supported plans for a largely privatized high-speed train.* Mica also held for a long time that Amtrak’s Northeast corridor should be privatized, thereby doing away with the national passenger rail system.
A second name that’s come up is the current T+I Committee chairman, Bill Shuster, a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania. But Shuster’s career in Congress has been marred by one serious conflict of interest: In 2015 he admitted that had an intimate relationship with an airline lobbyist. And, oh wait, the Washington Post reports that their sources say he’s not interested.
Another name that’s swirling about for this seat—or any seat—in the cabinet is Scott Walker, the union-busting Wisconsin governor who briefly campaigned against Trump in the GOP presidential primary. His record on the multimodal front is, um, not great: Under his leadership, the Wisconsin DOT could not defend a traffic demand model before a court, failing a fairly basic standard of agency competence. Walker also continues to push for expensive highway megaprojects in places where VMT is dropping. And he sure seems to despise Milwaukee’s in-progress streetcar project. Transit fans would consider Walker a decidedly backwards choice for this cabinet slot.
The outgoing Republican mayor of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Dewey Bartlett, has pitched himself to the Trump transition team as a contender for DOT secretary, announcing his desire for the job in his final State of the City address earlier this week. He boasted of his experience as a former commissioner for the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and his efforts to improve fuel efficiency for Tulsa’s fleet of vehicles. Bartlett has also attracted praise for his revitalization of downtown Tulsa and progressive views on transportation. For those reasons, he could be an interesting pick—as would the former Republican mayor of Indianapolis, Greg Ballard, who’s gotten props for his work to dramatically expand the city’s transportation network. So has Betsy Price, Republican mayor of Forth Worth, Texas, dubbed the most “bike crazy” mayor in America by Bicycling magazine.
Those last two names aren’t necessarily churning through the D.C. rumor mill, but they are on the lips of transportation experts. So are a couple of state DOT leaders, including Aubrey Lane, secretary of transportation in Virginia, and Paul Trombino, who resigned last week from his job as chief of Iowa’s DOT. Both have been strong advocates of offering citizens mobility options outside the automobile. Last year, Trombino garnered admiration from the transit wonk community when he admitted that road networks are likely to shrink, not grow, in the future.
For all his talk about "draining the swamp,” Trump has so far relied heavily on Washington insiders and lobbyists to handle his transition (the guy heading up the DOT transition spent a chunk of his career lobbying for the asphalt industry). Secretary of Transportation could be one opportunity to tap someone from the private sector. A candidate with experience negotiating public-private partnerships from the “other side” could bring badly needed practical perspective to Trump’s proposal to privatize federal infrastructure projects.
On the other hand, the new DOT secretary will also have a hand in hammering out the nuts and bolts of Trump’s much-talked about, little-detailed infrastructure spending bonanza. Privatizing all public works projects does not seem particularly viable, so a person who knows how to plunk real, public dollars on the table is going to be important.
With that in mind, one of the most compelling candidates might be the Utah House Speaker and Republican Representative Greg Hughes, who CityLab has confirmed to be in talks about the job with the Trump transition team. He was an early high-profile endorser of the president-elect in the primaries, served as chairman of the Utah Transit Authority, and helped oversee the much-admired expansion of Salt Lake City’s regional transit network. He helped push for rural bus networks and—big deal—increased state transportation spending back in 2015. Key, too, is his experience negotiating the differing mobility needs of rural and urban citizens, as a representative from suburban Salt Lake City and leading a state agency that serves both types of populations.
Given the Trump campaign’s focus (to say the least) on rural America, an incoming DOT secretary familiar with this distinction could be a strategic pick. Perhaps the new leader will work to expand the concept of “transportation equity” to rural areas, in the way that the current DOT secretary, Anthony Foxx, has done for urban America.
And a DOT secretary who sees climate change for what it is—a scientific certainty that federal policy must address, urgently—could be a much-needed voice of relative reason in the Trump cabinet. The president-elect has denied climate science and railed against all matter of EPA regulations, including fuel efficiency and emissions standards. A secretary who pushes for cleaner transportation options and smarter use of the world’s energy resources—by supporting efficiency standards, electric vehicles, and mobility options that don’t rely on fossil fuels—might offer a pinprick of hope for those who expect this presidency to doom the planet.
DOT secretary tends to be a cabinet seat that’s filled last, and the position is often used to round out the cabinet’s political diversity (see: Republican Ray LaHood under Obama and Democrat Norman Mineta under George W. Bush). Given how profoundly divisive Trump’s campaign and election have been, it’s probably unlikely we’ll see anything but a GOP character in this role. But the position can still be used to lend some variety to the professional experience and ideological flavor of the cabinet.
Trump’s leadership thus far has been marked by compulsive action and a lack of focus. Maybe, just maybe, his transition team will pay some attention to vetting the DOT leader, a cabinet pick that could matter a lot. More than an end in itself, transportation is a means to many ends: increasing access to jobs and education, improving equity for disadvantaged communities, shifting environmental impacts, opening up economic development opportunities, shaping land use patterns. Her or his political views aside, a Trump cabinet member that brings some expertise and thoughtfulness to their leadership could go a very long way.
UPDATE: This post has been updated with more information on Mica’s support for rail projects in Florida.