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Chao to investors: ‘We look forward to working with you’

Secretary of Transportation nominee Elaine Chao hinted in her Senate confirmation hearing that the private sector will have a key role to play in financing US infrastructure.

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, said on Wednesday she supported greater private-sector funding to help meet America’s infrastructure needs and that government should embrace innovative transportation technologies.

In her Senate confirmation hearing, Chao, a former deputy transportation secretary from 1989 to 1991, answered questions from the Commerce, Science and Transportation committee ranging from how to finance the US’ growing infrastructure needs to whether to privatise air traffic controllers.

“Our country’s transportation infrastructure is the underpinning of our world class economy,” Chao, who also served as secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, said in her opening remarks. “It is a key factor in productivity growth…it has provided us with unprecedented mobility, safety and security,” she said.

Trump made rebuilding US infrastructure one of his top campaign promises, proposing at one point to spend $1 trillion over 10 years.

The private sector will likely be needed to come close to meeting this mark, and Chao acknowledged “we all know the government does not have the resources to do it all”.

The Department of Transportation needs to further embrace innovative financing options like PPPs that can draw in private-sector support, she said, and stated to the investment community, “we look forward to working with you on all new options”.

Again pointing to the role private investors can play in shaping US infrastructure, Chao said innovative technologies like self-driving cars have the potential to transform transportation. However, she warned that government must still approve safe and efficient regulations for such technologies while not dampening creativity.

Chao, wife of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, also faced questions about how she would allocate funds from the FAST Act, a surface transportation funding bill passed in 2015. She replied saying there should be comparable funding provided for rural and urban transportation projects.

Another issue mentioned numerous times is the privatisation of air traffic controllers. The idea of allowing private companies to manage airport traffic is one that is gaining interest among politicians as the Federal Aviation Administration faces a funding authorisation vote this September. Chao said she wants to learn more about the topic before forming an opinion.

Overall, senators in the committee reacted positively to her nomination and gave no hint she would not be confirmed.