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Former DOT chief to potential Biden picks: Beware of agency turf wars

Reagan administration’s James Burnley sees coordination within department as key to advancing automation

(Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

As President-elect Joe Biden considers his short list of choices to head up the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), picking someone who knows how to break down organizational silos could be the most important attribute of the next DOT secretary.

That would be the advice for the Biden transition team from James Burnley IV, who served as U.S. secretary of transportation from 1987 to 1989 under President Ronald Reagan.

“Needless to say, [Biden’s transition team] didn’t seek my advice,” Burnley told FreightWaves on Monday. “But if they were to do so, I would encourage them to look for someone who has significant experience in managing a large, well-established organization with a particular track record of breaking down silos.”

Burnley, now a partner at the Venable law firm in Washington and considered one of the nation’s foremost authorities on transportation policy, explained that freight and transportation generally are in a period of rapid change, and the next DOT secretary will have to oversee the integration of increasingly automated systems in trucks and automobiles.

However, he said, there are currently three modal agencies that have a piece of the action: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. “So coordination among agencies on an issue like that will be critical in whether the federal government, in a way that’s safe, expedites — or impedes — the development of such technologies,” Burnley said.

He pointed out that DOT Secretary Elaine Chao and her team have worked well on rolling out automation policy during the past four years.

“But it’s very much a process, and particularly with the emphasis in the Biden administration on green issues, and reducing adverse impacts of transportation on the environment, the ability of DOT to expedite the adoption of new technologies and systems will make a difference.”

Burnley noted that, as is the case with most large organizations, turf rivalries can get in the way of progress. “It’s ultimately the DOT secretary’s responsibility to encourage them to work with each other, so you need a leader who understands that.”

He added that no one person can be an expert in all aspects of transportation — “It’s too fast and complex and rapidly evolving an area,” he said. “I think it’s going to be the leadership and organization skills that are going to make or break the department’s role over the next four years.”

Two names receiving much of the speculation attention as being in the running for the top spot at DOT: Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Each can boast some of the experience needed to get Congress to focus on infrastructure, a priority for the trucking industry.

Garcetti oversees the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest container port, which is undergoing a $2.6 billion upgrade to accommodate new and larger classes of container ships and to accommodate increased cargo volumes.

“But our freight system is underfunded — in Southern California there is a $2 billion-a-year freight infrastructure funding gap,” Garcetti said during a hearing on Capitol Hill in early 2019. “The costs of ignoring investment in our ports and freight system are increased congestion, declining productivity and lost jobs.”

Emanuel, who had advisory roles in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, worked on hiring minorities for a $2.3 billion rail extension project in Chicago, according to a report in Axios. The report also pointed to his Republican connections in the U.S. Senate, which could be instrumental in negotiating an infrastructure package.

“It’s no secret that we have to get an infrastructure bill done and we have to get one done soon,” Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) Vice President of Government Affairs David Heller told FreightWaves.

“Rumors are that infrastructure will be taken on by the new administration within the first 100 days, and actually getting a bill done by July 4. So there should be a comfort level within the administration in getting someone in that DOT seat who’s able to carry that ball across the finish line.”

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John Gallagher

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.