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03.29.2017 - U.S. DOT 50th Anniversary Open House

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
U.S. Department of Transportation 50th Anniversary Open House
March 29, 2017

Thank you, Ylan [Mui] for serving as Master of Ceremonies today.

Let me begin by acknowledging the very special guests on our program: Chairman John Thune; former Secretary of Transportation and Senator Elizabeth Dole; Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe; President Mike Sacco of the Seafarers International; Chairman Bill Shuster; and, the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell.

We are also honored today by the presence of two other former Secretaries of Transportation: Norm Mineta and Mary Peters.

I am also so pleased that my father, Dr. James S.C. Chao; sisters May Chao, Christine Chao and Dr. Grace Chao, their husbands Jeffrey Hwang and Gordon Hartogensis, and nieces Jessica Ruth Chao Hwang and Miranda Mei Chao Hwang are able to join us.    

It is so exciting to celebrate the 50th birthday of the U.S. Department of Transportation, and to preview the exciting new trends transforming the transportation system today.

When I first came to the Department so many years ago, smart phones and drones were part of the Star-Trek universe.

Well, they’re not science fiction anymore!

Today, we are seeing a technological revolution that will change the way we work, live, travel, and conduct commerce.   And this Department has an unprecedented opportunity to help shape that future for our country.

In the 50 years since the Department first opened its doors on April 1, 1967, we have seen an amazing transformation of our country’s infrastructure.

The national highway system initiated in the 1950’s has been completed.

Great airports were built.

Mass transit became an urban staple.

Freight railroads have become an attractive industry again.

Our country’s ports became international, intermodal hubs.

This infrastructure has been the backbone of our country’s economy for the past 50 years, strengthening competitiveness and creating unprecedented mobility and opportunity. 

Today, however, the infrastructure we all grew up with is aging. Technology – the great disruptor—is creating a new type of transport based on digital—not human—command and control.   In the future, computers, not people, will be in the driver’s seat.  That means “self-driving” cars, trucks, railroad cars, ships and drones. 

This technology has the potential to change our lives in ways we can’t imagine.

The trend of ownership of personal vehicles is evolving. Many people may choose ride sharing in self-driving cars over personal ownership.   Design and construction of future buildings, therefore, will not need as much parking space as they do today.  Self-driving cars and trucks will talk to each other – vehicle to vehicle communication - and keep a safe distance, reducing the number of highway fatalities. Our infrastructure will be “smart”—like our phones—so it can talk to and direct all the vehicles around it.   Around the world, drones are already in the air inspecting agriculture, delivering packages and improving railway, pipeline and shipping safety.   And new, satellite-based guidance systems will make aviation more reliable and safer.  Long delays at the airport will become the exception rather than the rule.

Change, however, brings many challenges.  And the Department of Transportation will be at the forefront of shaping this change, by focusing on the three priorities at the heart of our mission: enhancing safety, refurbishing infrastructure and preparing for the future.

The President has consistently emphasized that one of his top priorities is modernizing our country’s outdated infrastructure.  While technology has advanced rapidly, our transportation system has not kept pace. His infrastructure initiative -- which will be announced later this year-- will include a strategic, targeted program of investment valued at $1 trillion over 10 years. The proposal will cover more than transportation infrastructure-- it will include energy, water and potentially broadband and veterans hospitals, as well.

Safety will continue to be a priority—it’s the core of the Department’s mission. And the President’s recently announced budget protects those safety functions. Going forward, we must strengthen safety with a balanced regulatory approach, based on sound science and risk-based analysis. The goal is to prevent accidents and fatalities before they happen. 

Emerging technology also requires a regulatory approach that ensures safety, while encouraging innovation and preserving creativity.  This last point is especially important.  Creativity and innovation are part of the great genius of America—one of its hallmarks.  We must safeguard and nurture this legacy.  But it is also critical that Silicon Valley step up and share with the public their understanding of automated technology, and address legitimate public concerns about safety and privacy.

Another key issue, of course, is how to pay for infrastructure without saddling future generations with massive debt. The President’s plan hopes to unleash the potential for private investment in infrastructure by incentivizing public-private partnerships.  This is one additional way to address the resource needs of transportation systems. 

Investors say there is ample capital available, waiting to invest in infrastructure projects. So the problem is not money. It’s the delays caused by government permitting processes that hold up projects for years, even decades, making them risky investments. That’s why a critical part of the President’s infrastructure plan will include common-sense regulatory, administrative, organizational, and policy changes that will encourage investment and speed project delivery. 

As the former Secretary of Labor, I am concerned about the impact of technology on workers and jobs.  Smart technology will still require human interaction to function at its best.  But the new jobs being created will require higher skills and digital literacy.  So education and skills training will be more important than ever before.  We need to help ease the transition.

The changes and challenges we face today are opportunities to work together.  That’s why I want to work with you-- my colleagues, elected officials and stakeholders-- to incentivize the future, eliminate unnecessary barriers to change, and usher in a new era of safety, mobility and prosperity for our country and its residents. Thank you again for being here today to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the U. S. Department of Transportation, and to preview the future we will help shape together!