Senate confirms Elaine Chao to head U.S. Transportation Department

WASHINGTON — The full Senate on Tuesday voted to confirm Elaine Chao to run the Department of Transportation in a 93-6 vote.

Chao was the first Asian-American woman to hold a Cabinet position when she served as Labor Secretary from 2001 through 2009 under President George W. Bush. She previously was the Transportation Department’s deputy secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Trump has signaled the key role Chao will play as the administration carries out his campaign pledge to revitalize U.S. infrastructure with up to $1 trillion in funding, a goal that will require broad support from Congress. Trump, in his nomination announcement, called her record and experience “invaluable assets in our mission to rebuild our infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.”

Trump has announced plans to invest $550 billion in highway, airport and other infrastructure projects.

Major challenges

Chao will confront significant changes in the transportation landscape brought about by new technologies such as vehicle automation, in addition to long-standing challenges such as auto safety recalls that have tested established approaches to regulating the auto industry.

“Secretary Chao is an experienced leader, and an excellent choice for this important position,” Ziad Ojakli, Ford Motor Co.’s group vice president of government and community relations, said in a statement following Chao’s nomination. “Her knowledge and expertise will be an asset to the incoming Administration.”

Among Chao’s tasks will be deciding how to advance or revamp the Obama administration’s guidance for autonomous vehicle deployment issued in September.

NHTSA direction

Another will be shaping the direction of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the DOT agency in charge of regulating auto safety.

Under previous Administrator Mark Rosekind, the agency adopted a more aggressive enforcement stance following a string of high profile, deadly vehicle defects.

It has also pursued voluntary, non-binding initiatives to advance safety, such as a deal with most major automakers to make automatic emergency braking systems a standard feature on all new light vehicles by 2022.

Chao came to the U.S. from Taiwan with her parents at age 8 “speaking no English” according to a biography on her website. After graduating from Harvard Business School, Chao worked at Citicorp and Bank of America before she was tapped to be Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration within the Transportation Department, according to her biography. She later rose to be the department’s No. 2 official.

She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Chao has been a member of Wells Fargo’s board of directors since 2011, and is on the board of News Corp. Since June, she’s been a distinguished fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington.

Reuters, Bloomberg and Automotive News contributed to this report.

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