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Exclusive: Chao acknowledges COVID-19 challenges for transportation sector

Farewell letter obtained by FreightWaves also expounds on U.S. Capitol chaos, agency accomplishments

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will face challenges in 2021 as it works to help distribute COVID-19 vaccines, but the agency is up to the task, according to DOT Secretary Elaine Chao.

In a Friday farewell letter obtained by FreightWaves that was emailed to department employees, Chao stated that the men and women at DOT “have had an integral role” in helping the country get through the pandemic, and that transporting vaccines is the key to getting back to normal.

“In the transportation sector, the time between now and normal is going to be longer and harder for some stakeholders than for others,” Chao said. “This will be an ongoing challenge for the Department and one it is also well-equipped to address.”

Last week “Happy New Year” was in the air, she said. “Rarely had those three words had so much meaning for so many — a measure of the hope and expectation that in 2021 the COVID-19 public health emergency will begin receding in the Nation’s collective rearview mirror.”

She included this “Farewell Video” in her email, pointing out that she had intended to include it in her last “Friday Message” on January 15 before officially leaving her post on January 20.

Chao used the email to expand on her resignation Thursday in the wake of the Capitol Hill riot the day before. She was the first Cabinet member to resign because of the riot and was followed by Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos later that day.

“The chaos at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday was a sad, senseless and tragic spectacle,” she wrote. “Protests have long been part of the fabric of life and work in the Nation’s capital. They typically embody the core freedom and spirit of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment right to assemble peaceably. These gatherings can be a grand sight and great moments in our Nation’s history as citizens come from all over the country to make themselves heard. But Wednesday’s demonstration devolved into a brutish assault on the Capitol Building and on our democratic republic.”

Chao recounted how congressional leaders were able to return to the Capitol later that evening to resume the official count of electoral votes, which ended in Joe Biden being officially declared the next president.

“By nightfall, decency and decorum triumphed over demagoguery and a deranged disruption of the democratic process and institutions with which no one should wish to be, or caused to be, associated. That is what led to my announcement yesterday that I would be resigning, effective on this coming Monday.”

Chao also highlighted DOT’s most recent accomplishments, including a final rule issued this week streamlining procedures for civil supersonic aircraft.

“The legendary Concorde last flew in 2003, but the ambitions for civil supersonic flight have continued and a number of companies are working to bring it back and make it better. There is tremendous appeal in Mach-2.2 speeds — nearly 1700 mph — that would make a New York to London flight doable in a little over three hours and Los Angeles to Sydney in eight and a half hours.”

In addition, she cited a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), signed on January 4, between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA.

“This FAA-NASA MOU will support commercial space activities related to the transport of government and non-government passengers, cargo, and payloads for both orbital and suborbital missions. Commercial space is an exciting, growing and very promising arena which the U.S. continues to lead,” Chao said.

Related articles:

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

John Gallagher, Washington Correspondent

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.

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