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October 8, 2020 1:30 PM, EDT

Elaine Chao: Long-Term Plan Needed for US Infrastructure

ChaoChao via symposium screenshot

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Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the nation’s lawmakers must take a long-range view of addressing the country’s pressing infrastructure needs, and do the work needed to craft a funding measure more far-reaching and comprehensive than the one-year highway bill extension that recently advanced.

“We should be thinking strategically and long-term to address the infrastructure needs of our country, to address our economic competitiveness and productivity,” Chao said Oct. 8 during the Future of Freight and Supply Chain Management Symposium, a virtual event co-hosted by Transport Topics and CQ Roll Call. “We stand ready to work with Congress on a long-term measure to address our nation’s infrastructure needs. Certainly, for the states, the long-term transportation future is very important,” Chao said.

The newly extended FAST Act will shore up the ailing Highway Trust Fund with a $13.6 billion infusion of cash from the general fund, with $10.4 billion allocated to the roads and bridges account, and another $3.2 billion earmarked for mass transit. It’s money that Chao said is desperately needed, but she noted that infrastructure planning demands more than one year. “A road or a bridge doesn’t take a year to be built, it takes several years,” Chao said.

The one-year extension of the transportation measure was tucked into legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump that keeps the government funded through Dec. 11. Transportation leaders on Capitol Hill said they ran out of time to write a longer, five-year reauthorization bill.

Chao said the extension gives lawmakers time to produce a significant new highway policy bill and address the country’s infrastructure needs. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of these needed upgrades has never been more clear, she added, noting that trucking has performed a valuable service to the nation in transporting groceries, personal protective equipment and other items to battle the coronavirus. “I think we’re going through a very difficult time in our country, and I wish we could thank the first responders, more and not less,” she said. “I know these have been very challenging times for truck drivers.”

Chao discussed the steps DOT took to assist the trucking industry during the early months of the pandemic.

“Going into New York City, the truckers were facing a 14-day quarantine period. That made no sense. We negotiated, on their behalf, with the city and state of New York, to enable truckers to come in and out of New York to have truckers deliver the essential items that New Yorkers want,” she said. “We worked with local and state governments.”

Chao is now serving in her second presidential administration; she spent eight years as Secretary of Labor in the George W. Bush administration, and has been Trump’s DOT chief since the beginning of his term.

Should Trump win in November, she is optimistic infrastructure will move to the forefront of a second-term agenda. “While we have not been able to have an infrastructure bill, the department has distributed well over $200 billion to enhance, repair and rebuild America’s infrastructure,” she said. “I suspect that this will continue to be a huge topic for the next Trump administration.

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