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Yale CEO Forum Remarks

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao
Yale CEO Forum: Keeping Your Enterprise in Alignment
Tuesday, December 15, 2020

As U.S. Secretary of Transportation, my priorities going into 2020 were 3-fold:

  • Always focus on safety;
  • Reinvest in America’s transportation infrastructure - we had expected to spend about $300 billion by end of the year; and,
  • Prepare for the transportation systems of the future by engaging with new technologies to address legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation.

But what confronted us, and consumed our attention beginning in March 2020, was unprecedented and unexpected:  the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our country’s transportation systems.

When a national emergency was declared on March 13, 2020, the impact on our nation’s transportation system was clear:   

Our national air space saw a drop in traffic of 70%; 
Air passenger volume dropped by 96%; 
Transit and Amtrak dropped by 98%. 
Acela, as some of you may know, was discontinued for about 2-1/2 months before restarting on June 1, 2020. 

As we adjusted to this new reality, our goal was to keep the U.S. transportation system open, operational and safe and to maintain the survival of certain entities for the eventual economic recovery.

My biggest fear was closure of the national air space due to the spread of COVID-19, as air traffic controllers were forced to operate in small cramped spaces, i.e., air traffic control towers, without masks or social distancing.  Preventing the closure of the National Air Space was not just an economic necessity, it was a symbol of our nation’s might and prestige.

Since the COVD-19 pandemic was so unexpected, we had no up-to-date contingency plan.  We had to craft a plan within a very brief period of time, including a workforce deployment plan that ensured the safe operations for the Air Traffic Control systems and for the air traffic controllers.

We were also concerned with the implications of Covid-19 on the airlines, aviation contractors, transit authorities, rail line operators, truckers, etc.

We worked with the Congress on the CARES package, which was signed on March 27, 2020.  It included $25 billion for Transit; $10 billion for airports; $1 billion for Amtrak; $50 billion for the Airlines and aviation contractors, which the Treasury Department was responsible for distributing.  We had to ensure the accurate disbursement of about $35 billion in just about 7 days.  We knew there would be oversight of our performance in the future from auditors, the Inspector General, GAO investigators, etc.   

The Department also distributed 100 million face coverings in the first 2 months to transport workers.

Like all legislation, there were provisions that required compromise.  But given the urgency of the situation, the Congress moved quickly. 

Freight was a bright spot in all of this.  As most of us isolated at home in the beginning of COVID-19, freight volumes and rates increased.  Freight volumes remain healthy to this day.

Just seven months ago, this Administration launched Operation Warp Speed. It harnessed the full power of the federal government, the private sector and the scientific community in an unprecedented race to develop vaccines and therapies for Covid-19.  Previously, the shortest time it took to develop a new vaccine was 4 years.  But because of this unprecedented effort, a vaccine was approved in record time-- about 9 months.  Because of the special conditions under which the Covid-19 vaccine has to be transported – using dry ice and lithium batteries in particular – the department was involved in issuing waivers, and providing greater flexibility to distributors to ensure safe transport. 

Looking forward, we are all watching to see if the patterns we have seen so far will be longstanding and permanent.  To help the public, the Department is studying future scenarios and what is needed to help maintain the transportation system, rebuild user confidence, and facilitate the economy recovery.

Our goal was to help transportation industry survive and recover, so our economy could recover as quickly as possible.

What lessons have we learned so far from the Covid-19 experience?  Among them is the resiliency of our transportation systems, and the importance of protecting and preserving our transportation workforce, as well as the systems themselves.  So many of our transportation workers—including truckers and air traffic controllers—have been nothing short of heroic during this pandemic.  We need to always prepare for the worst, and if it’s not that bad, we’re none the less prepared.   Also useful are practice trial runs for emergency implementation. But I learned that working together, we can face any challenge.

The fact that you have NOT heard too much about our country’s transportation system being shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic is a testament to the work of this department and our country’s transportation operators, innovators and workers.  So with that, I’m looking forward to listening to our other panelists.  Thank you.