There are no Republican or Democratic highways; no such thing as Republican or Democratic traffic congestion; no such thing as Republican or Democratic aviation and highway safety.”

With these words, Democrat Norman Mineta last month accepted then-President-Elect Bush's nomination as Secretary of Transportation, a move that will bring to the Republican administration its only Democrat and a person held in regard by both industry, labor and his fellow politicians.

As Commerce Secretary under President Clinton, Mineta won high marks for understanding complex issues and being fair and open-minded, as well as a skilled negotiator. He prefers subtle, but substantive, changes from within rather than radical, headline-splashing alterations to organizations.

The California native has spent almost three decades in public service, starting his political career in the early 1970s as mayor of San Jose. Mineta worked his way up the political ladder through Congress, where he chaired the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, but left in 1995 after Republicans took control of the House. From there he joined Lockheed Martin Corp., a company involved with PrePass and other information services for the trucking and transportation industries.

Mineta is a champion of local control of transportation decisions, believing that federal funds should be given without strings attached. He was a key player in the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which shifted money-spending decisions out of Washington and into the hands of local and state governments.

He's also a strong supporter of mass transit and bike paths. Commenting during ISTEA proceedings: “We have demonstrated our ability to build highways to move vehicles. Now we must tackle the more difficult challenge of moving people within the heavily congested urban and suburban communities connected by these highways.” Also in 1991, Mineta sponsored a proposal to raise the gasoline tax 5¢ a gallon for modernization of highways and transit systems, but the bipartisan effort faded.

If he is confirmed, Mineta is expected to focus on two issues: rebuilding and maintaining the nation's transportation infrastructure and safety. It's believed that he will continue DOT Secretary Rodney Slater's promise to focus on lowering traffic fatalities through solid enforcement and getting unsafe carriers off the road.

In 1999, Slater asked Mineta to form a blue ribbon panel to study the “big picture” regarding transportation safety issues. One matter the group took on was whether or not the Office of Motor Carriers should be separated from its parent agency, FHWA, in the belief that truck safety enforcement deserved its own agency.

Although Slater advocated the split, Mineta resisted the notion, saying that the problem was one of OMC's poor execution and follow-through rather than where it ranked in DOT's hierarchy.

Mineta proposed a compromise that gave truck safety equal status with car, airline, railroad and maritime safety agencies but kept OMC intact. His congressional colleagues disagreed and decided to create a new agency, the now one-year old Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), but they accepted Mineta's premise that truck safety needed a higher profile than what it had.

Mineta will hit the ground running if the Senate confirms him. For trucking, he'll be faced with what to do about the on-again, off-again NAFTA process. Bush is a supporter of a full-blown NAFTA policy, while Democrats have generally taken a less aggressive approach.

Mineta's most difficult trucking task, however, will be the contentious issue of hours-of-service (HOS) reform. While Mineta is sympathetic to how schedules and fatigue play a role in operator performance, he must balance that notion with the Republican party's on-the-record platform promise to fight against changes in current HOS regulations.

Also on Mineta's to-do list will be choosing a permanent head of FMCSA, a position now held by interim chief Clyde Hart.

We should learn more about Mineta's views on trucking during his Senate confirmation hearings. If his two-day hearing for Commerce Secretary is any indication, the new hearings will be short and cordial.

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