Slippery Confirmation Hearing for Trump’s Transportation Pick

Elaine Chao, who appeared before the Senate Wednesday on her nomination as transportation secretary, is the wife of Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader.

WASHINGTON (CN) – President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of transportation Elaine Chao faces the daunting task of heading up revitalization efforts in nearly every state in the country.

Her confirmation hearing Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee was short on details of how Chao plans to specifically attack the nation’s aging infrastructure.

Largely seen as a sure bet for confirmation, Chao is the only appointee who has experience inside of a presidential cabinet. Chao served as secretary of labor under President George W. Bush and once served as deputy treasurer secretary for his father, President George H.W. Bush.

During his campaign, Trump proposed a massive $1 trillion infusion over 10 years for upgrades to public transportation, aviation and roads and bridges. It was a major selling point for the real-estate mogul on the campaign trail.

The large investment, according to his infrastructure plan, would “create thousands of new jobs in construction, steel manufacturing and other sectors to build the transportation … infrastructure.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, Chao was mum on what discussions she had, if any, with the incoming administration.

Historically, stimulus packages for such projects have been opposed by the GOP. During the Obama administration, Chao’s Republican husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, helped lead the charge to block similar actions.

McConnell was also critical of Trump’s costly proposal in November when he told reporters at a press conference that he “hoped to avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus.”

What Chao did emphasize repeatedly was her desire to see the Department of Transportation move toward more innovative problem-solving measures. The former labor secretary urged committee members to see technology as a “catalyst rather than an impediment.”

Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, asked Chao if she thought the various transportation industries may one day reflect on a missed opportunity to do more.

“Do you think 10 years from now, we’ll look back on this moment, where world food demand will double in 30 or 40 years … and we’ll ask, why didn’t we do something?” said

Blunt. “Why didn’t we get inland port structure, rail structure and air to come together?”

Chao argued that fixing infrastructure boils down to changing the way the DOT, the Federal Aviation Industry and the Federal Railroad Administration, among others, see each other.

“We still have sectors of the economy viewing each other as competitors when we should all be working together,” Chao replied. “As we consider the infrastructure of the future, we need to focus on how different modes of transportation can be seamless partners and deliverers of services to provide a more productive transportation system.”

Amid the calls for cooperation, some senators addressed looming budgetary concerns – namely money troubles plaguing the Highway Trust Fund. That fund pulls from federal fuel taxes on gas, which is then reinvested into highway upkeep.

Sen. Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, reminded the committee that the fund is staring down the face of a $107 billion shortfall over the next five years before its expiration.

Chao quickly echoed Fischer’s warning.

“It’s in bad shape,” Chao agreed. “The gas tax, which is 90 percent of the funding for [the trust], is not as lucrative as it used to be. … There’s a $10 billion deficit every year, and we can’t make that up on volume.”

No matter how the fund is paid for, Chao warned, it will go bankrupt in 2021, “if we don’t do something.”

Senators were also unable to nail down Chao’s exact position on privatization of federal transportation organizations. Appearing open to the idea, as it could provide a much-needed cash infusion for various projects, Chao said only that she has considered arguments from both proponents and detractors.