From Boyd to Chao to Buttigieg: The History of the Secretary of Transportation

By Eric MuellerLast Updated May 11, 2021 11:41:33 AM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons, U.S. Department of Labor/Wikimedia Commons, and U.S. Department of Transportation/Wikimedia Commons

Fourteenth in the line of Presidential succession, the Secretary of Transportation post was first established on October 15, 1966 during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. When you think about it, cars were still finding their way into homes at the time. Airports were new, only about 30 years old. Railroads were not regulated at a federal level aside from a few congressional acts But as all of these industries grew, federal oversight became important.

More than another factor in the government’s checks and balances, the Secretary of Transportation has become a Cabinet position of notoriety. This doesn’t mean that the position itself is more notorious. But rather, high-profile candidates are being offered the job, like Elaine Chao and Pete Buttigieg. This makes the Secretary of Transportation role stick out more than it has in the past when compared to the 14 other Cabinet positions in the executive branch.

Its mission, as of 2013, is, "To ensure America has the safest, most efficient and modern transportation system in the world, which boosts our economic productivity and global competitiveness and enhances the quality of life in communities both rural and urban."

However, you’re not alone if you’re not well versed in what the Secretary of Transportation does and what they have done for the country. Read on to learn more.

The Constitutional Roots of the Transportation Department

Although the Secretary of Transportation post was formed in 1966, its roots actually go way back — all the way to the United States Constitution. In Article I, Section 8, you’ll find the Commerce Clause, which allows Congress, "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes."

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Department of Transportation/ Wikimedia Commons and Unknown Author/Wikimedia Commons

Most early invocations of the Commerce Clause happened prior to World War II and have to do with antitrust issues. In Gibbons v. Ogden, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that New York had to break up a steamboat monopoly, allowing for government regulation. In other instances, such as Federal Baseball Club v. National League, the Supreme Court ruled that the government did not have authority to break up Major League Baseball.

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The Commerce Clause was also used as a tool to oppress and overtake Indigenous people. Using the commerce clause, the Supreme Court refused to recognize the Cherokee Nation as a foreign state, which would have given the tribe more rights, in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia.

The Commerce Clause might have some questionable invocations, but necessary government branches, like the Department of Commerce, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Transportation (DoT), exist today due, in part, to this one section of the Constitution.

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Alan S. Boyd was the first to be appointed to the Secretary of Transportation position. In 1966, Boyd essentially had to merge dozens of different regulated transportation groups and create one cohesive unit. This meant managing roughly 95,000 employees with a budget of just $5 billion. Five years prior to the office’s formation, Boyd’s relationship to transit regulation became personal in 1961 when he was in a plane crash that killed both pilots.

In Boyd’s time as Transportation Secretary, he got into an argument with President Johnson over merchants of the sea and, according to Boyd’s memoir, said "you are crazy as hell," at one point to the President of the United States. How many people can stay they’ve told off their President or even their boss?

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Still, as the first Secretary of Transportation, Boyd streamlined the United States’s railroad system, leading to what we now know as Amtrak. He also partnered up with the first lady, Claudia "Lady Bird’ Johnson, on her highway restoration cause.

Department of Transportation Through the Ages

Did you know that the Coast Guard was once considered part of the Department of Transportation? Their purpose was to help keep those transporting people and goods as safe as possible. It was not until 9/11 that the Coast Guard eventually shifted over to the Department of Homeland Security.

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Photo courtesy: Anucha Sirivisansuwan/Getty Images

The Department of Transportation has made a lot of strides over the years. In 1968, Federal standards for cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles were finally released. Regulations can seem scary or invasive, but these sorts of regulations eventually led to mandatory inclusion of seatbelts and airbags in all cars. This would take almost 20 more years, becoming standard in 1984, which Is wild to think about when you consider that Ford’s Model T came into the world in 1908. Other notable improvements made to the quality of life in the U.S. include the banning of cigarette smoking on planes and highway beautification.

Notable Secretaries of Transportation include Elizabeth Dole (wife of Bob), who was the first woman to be in charge of a branch of the United States military. Dole served during the Reagan era, doing everything from working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to establishing the legal drinking age and strengthening drunk driving laws to making sure all vehicles have adequate brake lights and visible rear lights at nighttime.

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Federico Peña was the first non-white person to serve as Transportation Secretary. Under the Clinton Administration, he pretty much modernized international air and flight policies to make it easier for airlines to accomodate more flights. So, next time you score a cheap flight, think of Peña and the Department of Transportation.

Since some agencies were moved over the years, the Department of Transportation now only has a staff of 55,000 across 3 agencies, which include the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, the Railroad Administration, and more. The current salary of the Secretary of Transportation is $221,400 per year.

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Notable Hires and the Future of Transit

While the Department of Transportation is a legitimate office in our executive branch, the folks that have held the post in the past were typically more low-profile people with careers in transportation-related fields. Rarely would the Secretary of Transportation be someone known as a mogul in any industry or someone with future political aspirations. But this is changing.

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Photo Courtesy: Bloomberg/Getty Images

In 2016, Elaine Chao was appointed Secretary of Transportation in a controversial Cabinet that saw a lot of firings, resignations, and investigations. Her hiring didn’t come out of nowhere. Chao was known for being the former Secretary of Labor in the second Bush administration, but the hiring still raised eyebrows. Chao has a very high networth and is married to former Senate majority leader Mitchell McConnel, which was one of several conflicts of interest during her time in the Cabinet.

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People were also worried when Elaine Chao said that she would be using her time in the department to learn more about drone technology and how to incorporate drones into our airspace. Being a heavy hitter herself, Chao worked with titans like Elon Musk to explore commercial space travel and alternative infrastructure.

Chao came under fire for spending over 290 hours in meetings labeled "private" in her first 18 months as secretary. She also promoted her family’s shipping business, which brought Chao’s ethics into question, especially while the United States Post Office (USPS) was facing severe underfunding. Chao resigned from her post shortly after the incited destruction and violence at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. Chao was not the first person of Asian descent to hold any Cabinet office, but she was the first to hold the Secretary of Transportation title.

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Now, President Joe Biden’s appointment of Pete Buttigieg is the first of its kind in several ways. Buttigieg is the first openly gay Cabinet Secretary. He also has had a thriving career in politics as a former mayor and as a presidential candidate. Buttigieg has written one book and speaks several languages. With the appointment of this veteran, we can expect a lot of modernization — something that’s already been put into motion.

Buttigieg had the honor of unveiling Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure plan. No stranger to the public eye, Buttigieg has appeared on cable news and at live press conferences in support of the bill. For example, in Pittsburgh, the former mayor discussed an assessment of the city’s bridges, and said that this bill would be a "generational investment."

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If the DoT is dedicated to bringing the people what they need to get where they need to go, does this mean high-speed railroads are in our future? Maybe it means self-driving cars. Hopefully, it means improved quality of life for Americans from all walks of life.