Mineta moves on

The longest serving Department of Transportation Secretary, Norman Mineta, left his position in early July at a time when the agency still is grappling with increasing traffic congestion, continual CDL fraud, a crumbling transportation infrastructure, management shortfalls at FMCSA and the absence of a national freight policy. To be sure, these issues were not brought on by any particular action by

The longest serving Department of Transportation Secretary, Norman Mineta, left his position in early July at a time when the agency still is grappling with increasing traffic congestion, continual CDL fraud, a crumbling transportation infrastructure, management shortfalls at FMCSA and the absence of a national freight policy. To be sure, these issues were not brought on by any particular action by Mineta, but neither were they fixed by his agency.

“I have a tremendous, weighty heart, and I just want to thank all of you,” he told staffers when announcing his resignation. “This was a great ride, and I fed off your dedication and passion.”

To the well-informed public, Mineta will be remembered for his guidance in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks when DOT built the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), which was later folded into the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.

More than any recent cabinet secretary, speculation of his departure was a constant theme. There were many in Washington who thought that he might quit after DOT's security function was taken away — not only for air transportation, but for trucking as well. It was also thought that he might resign after Congress belatedly passed the record $286.5-billion transportation budget, a drawn out and contentious undertaking. Again, speculation arose that he would leave when back problems forced him to run the agency from his hospital bed and home.

In the end, he left on his own timetable. Mineta, 74, said he is considering a job in the private sector, but did not elaborate. White House officials say that he was not forced out and that the decision was strictly the Secretary's.

For the trucking industry, he will be remembered as overseeing the establishment of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration that began in January, 2000 by legislative mandate. Since its formation, FMCSA has been criticized by some industry stakeholders and the DOT's Inspector General for lax enforcement and poor management, especially in the area of rulemaking. The IG has noted in several reports that FMCSA was many years behind in pending rulemakings and that truck enforcement sometimes had been slipshod, allowing safety violators to pass through inspection loopholes. In other instances, such as the hours-of-service rules, FMCSA found itself embroiled in protracted court battles over fine points that many argued should have been made more bulletproof.

According to those at DOT, the biggest knock against Mineta was that although he was a person of good character, and a savvy political navigator — he was the only Democratic cabinet secretary in a Republican administration — he sometimes was too trusting, kept poor performers too long and was slow to handle urgent matters. “He let important personnel problems linger,” said one manager.

Perhaps Mineta's most important and lasting legacy to the trucking industry and the general public will be the growing interest in private-public road partnerships, that is, the sale of public roads to private enterprise, and the start of tolling on interstate highways. Mineta was a strong advocate for both.

At presstime, a replacement has not been named but the short list includes Deputy Transportation Secretary Maria Cino, Federal Aviation Administrator Marion Blakey and Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Michael Jackson.

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