U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had been on the job only a few weeks when she took action on one of the region’s most intractable problems and directed millions in federal transit dollars be withheld from the District, Maryland and Virginia until they create a safety agency to oversee D.C.’s subway, Metro.
Chao was making good on a threat by her predecessor, Anthony Foxx, a move that surprised some local officials who had hoped that the jurisdictions had shown enough progress to stave off the action.
It’s too soon to say whether Chao’s action is a sign she will continue Foxx’s aggressive hands-on approach to dealing with the struggling transit agency. But, if she does, she will be continuing a long tradition of U.S. secretaries of transportation leaving their mark on the region – whether through policy or pushing important projects.
Had it not been for William Coleman, transportation secretary in the Ford administration, a key portion of Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway may never have been built. Many observers say Metro’s Silver Line owes its existence to Mary Peters, who as secretary under George W. Bush saved it from certain death, and Ray LaHood, who kept it on track as secretary during President Barack Obama’s first term. In each of these instances, a push from the nation’s top transportation official moved stalled projects forward – sometimes over local objections.
Some would argue that their decisions weren’t always in the best interests of the region. Others view their intervention as an unwelcome intrusion on local sovereignty. But most recognize that the District isn’t a typical U.S. city, and being home to the nation’s capital garners an outsized share of attention from the top levels of government.
“I’m sure [the secretaries] love Portland and Dallas and Atlanta,” said former congressman Frank Wolf , R-Va., who was an outspoken advocate for federal transportation spending during his more than three decades in Congress. “But whatever happens here has a tremendous impact across the country.”
David Whitestone, an attorney with Holland & Knight who previously chaired the firm’s transportation industry team, said, “The way I see it, federal secretaries of transportation have played an outsized role in our region’s transportation policy, way back to Secretary Coleman and I-66, Secretary [Elizabeth] Dole and the airports; Mary Peters and her decision on the Silver Line.”
Chao could exert similar influence. She might choose to champion Maryland’s Purple Line. As someone expected to play a significant role in President Donald Trump’s much talked about trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, she could push to invest money in projects in the Washington region. For example, finding a way to ease congestion on the American Legion Bridge, a major commuter artery that connects Maryland and Virginia, would win her fans from both sides of the Potomac.
And then there is Metro.
Foxx, deeply troubled by a series of calamities, including a 2015 smoke incident that killed one person, took the unprecedented step of putting his own people in charge of overseeing the safety of Metro’s troubled rail system. He summoned leaders to closed-door meetings in his Southeast Washington office and pushed them to create an independent safety agency to oversee Metro’s operations. And when the jurisdictions failed to heed the call, he threatened to withhold millions in federal transit funding.
With her decision last week, Chao made good on that threat. But fixing Metro will require more than just stronger safety oversight.
“The underlying financial and administrative challenges that Metro faces are going to have to be addressed and the federal government needs to be a partner in that process,” said John Milliken, a former Virginia transportation secretary. If the region is going to work, Metro must be fixed, he said.
Peters, who served as George W. Bush’s transportation secretary, said she always thought the Washington area should be an example of a region doing innovative things to move people around.
“The nation’s capital needs to have a transportation system that we’re proud of,” she said.
There are other reasons, of course, that traffic in the nation’s capital gets attention from top officials like her, she said.
Whether they work at the Pentagon, the Food and Drug Administration or the Transportation Department, federal workers also depend on the region’s transportation system to get to their jobs.
“This is the nation’s capital, and because of that officials have a fundamental responsibility for ensuring the operations of government,” said Emeka Moneme, deputy executive director of the Federal City Council and a former director of the D.C. Department of Transportation.
The debate over whether to build I-66 raged for decades.
“The reality was that it was dead in the water,” said Jim Wilding, a former Federal Aviation Administration official. “Secretary Coleman came forward and put life back into it.”
Coleman was so personally involved that he held a public hearing asking for input from community members. Two years later, he issued a 71-page document that laid out the rationale for building the roadway.
“This has been a difficult decision for me to make,” he wrote. “The opinions of well-informed and sincere citizens and officials have been mixed, particularly from those representing jurisdictions inside the Beltway. On balance, however, I have concluded that the multimodal solution provided by the VDHT will best meet the transportation needs of northern Virginia while fulfilling the environmental, social and economic objectives of the local community and the federal government.”
Milliken, who as an Arlington County, Virginia, supervisor was among those who opposed the project, said in the end it was good for the region.
“It spurred growth to the west, improved access to Dulles Airport and Tysons Corner and everything in between in ways that otherwise would not have been possible,” said Milliken, who would later become Virginia’s transportation secretary.
Added Wolf: “Imagine traffic in the region if we didn’t have I-66 or Metro? It’s bad enough with them.”
Dole, who was transportation secretary in the Reagan administration, made the region’s aging airports a pet cause.
Dulles and Reagan National were built by the federal government and had the distinction of being the only airports in the country managed by the federal government.
“They weren’t good at it and didn’t pretend to be,” said Wilding, who as an FAA official was responsible for overseeing the airports’ operations. Money for improvements had to come from the federal government.
“They were in terrible condition,” Wolf said. “They were falling down and the [federal government] knew it, but they didn’t know what to do about it.”
Dole’s successful campaign helped create the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to manage the airports, enabled them to modernize and expand – growth that created jobs and increased the number of passengers. But that expansion also led to complaints about noise that continue to this day.
Norman Mineta, who preceded Peters in George W. Bush’s administration, said secretaries, while not immune to criticism, can in many instances “operate above the political fray.”
Mineta counts Maryland’s Intercounty Connector as one of the key local projects he helped shepherd. Working with his former House colleague Robert Ehrlich, who later became the state’s governor, Mineta revived the project, expediting environmental reviews.
And Wolf is convinced that the Silver Line rail project would never have been built had it not been for the hands-on intervention of Peters and LaHood.
Peters, Wolf said, was instrumental in revving the project after it was deemed unqualified to receive $900 million in federal funding because of cost concerns. When the project’s budget threatened to spiral out of control again, it was LaHood who stepped forward, holding a series of closed-door meetings to hammer out a deal. As part of a financing agreement LaHood also agreed to help provide federal loan assistance to the partners in the project.
“There ought to be a little plaque out there somewhere with their names on it,” said Wolf, who, as a member of the House Appropriations Committee, also played a key role in salvaging the rail project. “Had the two of them not been [secretary] there would be no rail to Dulles.”
Peters recalled that there were many people who weren’t happy with her decision.
“Sometimes you’re going to be in a position where you make decisions that aren’t going to be winners in the near term. But then people will look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do that sooner?’ ” she said.
As secretary, Chao will have no shortage of projects vying for her attention and she can be certain to face an aggressive lobbying campaign from regional leaders. She has already met with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, D, and is set to meet with Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld.
Most agree however, that at the top of the list will be dealing with the region’s troubled Metro system, which will require delving into difficult questions that go beyond infrastructure.
“The question will be, ‘What role do you think the federal government should play in the revamping of Metro to meet its next set of challenges?’ ” Milliken, the former Virginia transportation secretary said.
Something like Metro – a subway system – may be viewed as being a local concern, Moneme said, but it is the nation’s capital after all. “What happens here has national implications.”