And the New Head of DOT Is . . .
UPDATE: Trump has just announced that he will appoint Elaine Chao to head the Department of Transportation. She is the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell–so much for “draining the swamp”– and served as Secretary of Labor for George W. Bush. No history uncovered so far that might indicate where she stands on the subject of Amtrak in particular or passenger rail in general.
Ordinary folks tend to brush off a lot of these appointments without fully understanding how important they are. Presidents—in fact, governors and big city mayors, too—necessarily rely on key appointees to develop policy for their individual departments, subject to approval by the chief executive. That’s how it works in any large bureaucracy, public or private.
But in the Trump Administration, those department heads are going to have unprecedented responsibility. By now it should be clear to everyone, whether Democrat or Republican, that the president-elect is only vaguely familiar with most of the issues and is temperamentally disinclined to learn more. To develop policy—whether foreign or judicial or transportation—President Trump is going to rely very heavily on his appointees.
For example, it’s very easy to imagine the person he appoints to run the Department of Transportation sending Trump a formal recommendation that the Interstate Highway System be converted to toll roads. That idea is, in fact, entirely compatible with the ideology of the several people who came to the Trump Transition Team from one of the Libertarian “think tanks”. It’s all too easy to visualize Trump skimming through some radical new proposal and saying, “Hell of an idea! Make it so”, then going back to tweeting a snarky comment about an editorial in the New York Times he hated.
Those of us who are advocates for more and better and faster trains are holding our collective breaths, and I think it’s fair to say that most of us fear the worst. Probably the best we can hope for is that the next Secretary of Transportation is someone who has simply never given any serious thought to passenger trains one way or another.