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Trump Names Elaine Chao as Next U.S. Transportation Secretary

Former Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao has been tabbed to serve as the 18th Transportation Secretary, pending Senate confirmation.

Former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao is President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for the next U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

Chao, an unexpected choice by some to head the Department of Transportation (DOT), led the United States Department of Labor for eight years under former President George W. Bush. Her most recent connection to forming transportation policy comes from her time as Deputy Secretary of Transportation from 1989-1991.

Prior to her role as Deputy Secretary, Chao was named Deputy Maritime Administrator for the DOT from 1986-1988, then as Chairman for the Federal Maritime Commission from 1988-1989.

On the campaign trail, Trump has championed the rebuilding of America’s infrastructure, promising a $1 trillion plan on revitalizing the nation’s roads, bridges, ports and other public transit systems.

Although there is not much detailed policy in what types of infrastructure projects Trump will pursue, one paper (PDF) was released just before the election by two Trump campaign policy advisers. According to a Washington Post analysis, Trump’s plan “doesn’t directly fund new roads, bridges, water systems or airports… Instead, Trump’s plan provides tax breaks to private-sector investors who back profitable construction projects.“

In a release, Trump noted that Chao’s extensive record of strong leadership and expertise "are invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Former Speaker of the House and early Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich tweeted his support for Chao’s appointment:

Elaine Chao will be great Secretary of Transportation.She really understands the federal government-can lead rebuilding our infrastructure — Newt Gingrich (@newtgingrich) November 29, 2016
Support has also come from David Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for Barack Obama's presidential campaigns:

Though we disagree on many issues, I'm sure, I've worked with @ElaineChao on the board of the @HarvardIOP & respect her greatly. — David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) November 29, 2016
During her tenure as Secretary of Labor, Chao began to deregulate the coal mining industry, something President-elect Trump has committed to during the campaign trail. Chao, however, faced criticism in the wake of the Sago coal mine disaster and the Aracoma Alma Mine accident in January of 2006. In response, Chao and a host of bipartisan legislators crafted the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act , which requires mine operators to develop and continuously update written emergency response plans. The bill was signed by President George W. Bush on June 15, 2006.

Through the appointment of Chao, Trump selected another Washington insider after campaigning on a promise to “drain the swamp,” as Chao has been married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., since 1993.

Born in Taiwan, Chao was the first Asian-American woman to serve in a Cabinet position. Chao now serves as the third woman appointed by Trump after Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations nominee, Nikki Haley.

It remains to be seen how Chao will impact federal regulations of autonomous vehicles, whether the Smart Cities Challenge will continue, how commercial drones will be regulated or how EV charging station infrastructure plans will progress.

*This article was corrected at 2:15 pm, to include Haley's appointment and a statement from President-Elect Trump.

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.