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Power index: Top 10 Biden appointments affecting freight markets

Leaders from across the administration connect supply chain links

Top 10 picks influence rail, ocean, highway freight. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves & The White House)

While almost every cabinet department and a host of federal agencies within the executive branch touch freight and supply chains in some way, these 10 recent appointees by President Joe Biden will likely figure most prominently in steering freight transportation policy as Biden’s administration gets underway. The list is in alphabetical order by last name.

Pete Buttigieg, secretary, U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT)

(Credit: U.S. DOT)

Background: Buttigieg began campaigning for Biden almost immediately after dropping out of the presidential race in early 2020 and given the endorsement power of the popular former South Bend, Indiana, mayor, it was not a surprise he was rewarded with a cabinet post. Most would not have guessed, however, that DOT would have been Buttigieg’s landing spot given his lack of experience with major infrastructure projects. Then again, hands-on experience has not traditionally been a prerequisite for many top cabinet positions.

Why he matters for freight: After four years of much talk but no action during the Trump administration, there is pent-up desire on both sides of the political aisle to get a bipartisan, long-term infrastructure bill across the finish line within the next two years.

As DOT secretary, Buttigieg will be a driving force behind Biden’s $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan that the president laid out informally last year and that is expected to be the administration’s blueprint. Policies addressing climate change, civil rights and equity are linked with transportation policy like never before and align almost in lockstep with Buttigieg’s philosophy.

Within the trucking sector, Buttigieg left open the possibility during his confirmation hearing of revisiting hours-of-service regulations, rolling back federal preemption of state meal and rest break laws, and taking a closer look at whether to allow more flexibility in sleeper berth split-time provisions.

Steve Cliff, deputy administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)

(Credit: Steve Cliff)

Background: For the past 12 years, Cliff served in technical and leadership roles in state government at the influential California Air Resources Board (CARB) and at the California Department of Transportation. As a former deputy executive officer of CARB, Cliff oversaw environmental vehicle regulations that included heavy-duty engine emissions.

Why he matters for freight: In addition to supporting Biden’s electric-vehicle policy goals – which includes heavy trucks – Cliff will be the keeper of the administration’s vehicle safety statistics on large-truck crashes. Those statistics are often used by safety groups as evidence that regulatory changes meant to ease industry cost burdens are unsafe. Cliff will be tasked with enforcing vehicle performance standards to reduce deaths, injuries and economic losses from large-truck crashes.

Meera Joshi, acting administrator, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)

(Credit: FMCSA)

Background: Before being appointed to lead FMCSA, Joshi spent eight years at the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, the last five, 2014 to 2019, as the agency’s CEO. While there, she was responsible for regulating Uber and Lyft, ensuring that they “adhere to core consumer protections such as adequate insurance, price transparency, access for the disabled and fingerprint background checks for all drivers,” according to her resume.

Why she matters for freight: As acting administrator, Joshi will step aside once the Senate confirms a yet-to-be-named administrator nominee within the coming months. In the meantime, she has authority over truck driver safety regulations, with the power to take action on – or not – petitions under review at FMCSA. They include small-business truckers seeking more transparency in broker transactions; an FMCSA pilot program that would pause in the 14-hour driving window; a pilot program for under-21 drivers; and a Transportation Intermediaries Association petition looking to rein in illegal brokers. Joshi will also be monitoring various rule exemptions and extensions for drivers related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lucinda Lessley, acting administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration (MarAd)

(Credit: MarAd)

Background: Lessley, who took the agency’s helm shortly after Administrator Mark Buzby stepped down in the wake of the U.S. Capitol riots, worked on Capitol Hill the previous 16 years, most recently as senior investigator with the House Committee on Homeland Security. She was also part of the professional staff of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Coast Guard and Maritime subcommittee.

Why she matters for freight: As an agency within DOT, it is MarAd’s job to advise the department on commercial maritime issues affecting the U.S. maritime sector and to provide private-sector sealift capacity for the Department of Defense when needed. In addition, given Biden’s strong support of the Jones Act — a law that prioritizes U.S. cargo ships and shipbuilding over foreign vessels — Lessley will likely be called on to be a staunch defender of the law as well as MarAd testifies on its upcoming budget.

Tim Manning, supply chain management coordinator, White House COVID Response

(Credit: Tim Manning)

Background: Manning is the former deputy administrator for protection and national preparedness at FEMA under President Obama. As the COVID Response team’s supply coordinator, Manning will organize the federal effort “focused on securing, strengthening and ensuring a sustainable pandemic supply chain,” according to the White House, as well as work with departments and agencies to ensure sufficient personal protective equipment, tests, vaccines and related supplies and equipment.

Why he matters for freight: The White House has been preparing a formal review of critical supply chains to reduce dependence on imports of pandemic-related equipment and materials, which could have implications for cargo space on planes and trucks, at the same time that the administration is ordering Pfizer to boost production of its vaccines. The increased focus on supply chains will also raise the performance stakes for domestic last-mile delivery.

Martin Oberman, chairman, Surface Transportation Board (STB)

(Credit: STB)

Background: Oberman follows Ann Begeman, respected for her ability to navigate contentious railroad-shipper issues during her four-year tenure as acting chairman of the independent rail regulatory agency. Oberman brings with him several years of STB experience, having served as a board member since 2019 and the past year as vice chairman.

Why he matters for freight: Railroads provide the heavy lifting for shippers moving unit trains of commodities such as chemicals, fertilizer, grain and coal, and with several proceedings at the agency awaiting action, Oberman gets to choose which to focus on and at what pace. Included among those are when and how to lift exemptions as they pertain to rail rates and requiring reciprocal switching among rail railroads to bolster competition. Some shippers also want to see the STB continue to investigate the railroads’ adoption of precision scheduled railroading that customers contend has resulted in less frequent service.

Stephanie Pollack, senior adviser, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)

(Credit: FHWA)

Background: Pollack most recently served as secretary and CEO of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, where she oversaw the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and served on the board of the Massachusetts Port Authority, which is in the middle of a major harbor deepening project to accommodate larger container ships.

Why she matters for freight: As with Joshi at FMCSA, Pollack will lead FHWA until an administrator is nominated and confirmed. While directing the agency, Pollack will be responsible for getting funding generated from the Highway Trust Fund to states and Metropolitan Planning organizations. FHWA also coordinates hundreds of millions of dollars in federal competitive grants for freight and highway projects with national and regional significance. Congress also made FHWA the lead agency at DOT analyzing the lack of truck parking capacity, which it is documenting through the Jason’s Law Truck Parking Survey.

Michael Regan (nominee), administrator, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

(Credit: NC DEQ)

Background: Regan was considered a “consensus builder” while last serving secretary of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, a major factor in Biden’s choice to head EPA. He will have a significant role in implementing the president’s climate goals.

Why he matters for freight: In addition to the effects on the industry of moving toward Biden’s goal of zero vehicle emissions by 2050, trucking will be keeping close tabs on EPA’s effort to reverse course set by Trump’s EPA in rolling back Obama-era emissions standards. Those standards can add thousands of dollars to the cost of a new truck, and Biden plans to reverse course once again and tighten emissions restrictions. EPA regulations under the Obama administration have had serious cost implications for the manufacture of glider kits (trucks assembled with reconditioned components) and truck trailers. A lawsuit filed by the Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association against the EPA is pending on appeal.

Marty Walsh (nominee), secretary, U.S. Department of Labor (DOL)

(Credit: Boston mayor’s office)

Background: As mayor of Boston during the last seven years, Walsh has cited several accomplishments: securing a $15 minimum wage, paid sick leave and paid parental leave and closing the gender wage gap.

Why he matters for freight: Walsh’s worker-centric labor philosophy meshes with Biden’s plans to avoid implementing an employee classification regime approved under the Trump administration in early January. The federal rule favored the independent contractor model supported by large carriers but has been opposed by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) sees potential for the issue of independent contractor status to shift from a state-by-state strategy to a national agenda under the Biden administration’s DOL. “It’s something we’re going to have to fight directly in Washington,” commented ATA President Chris Spear.

Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) – Appointee unnamed as of Feb. 21

(Credit: FMC)

Background: Candidates in the mix for the position include current Democrat commissioners Carl Bentzel and Daniel Maffei.

Why he/she will matter for freight: Biden’s pick to lead the five-member independent agency in charge of regulating the U.S. container trades (currently headed by Chairman Michael Khouri) will immediately have on their plate issues affecting port congestion, container detention/demurrage costs and container ship management practices. Last week the FMC stepped up investigations into the policies and practices of the vessel alliances calling at the ports of New York, Los Angeles and Long Beach and their effects on U.S. exporters, and Biden’s pick to the lead the agency will likely see these issues intensify as container supply chains continue to adjust to global market fluctuations.

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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.