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U.S. Department of Transportation - An Overview

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U.S. Department of Transportation - An Overview
U.S. Department of Transportation - An Overview

The DOT (Department of Transportation) is the U.S. federal agency in charge of developing and maintaining the infrastructure and systems related to transportation within the country. From airlines to roads to railways, the Department of Transportation supports the moving of American citizens by trucks, cars, planes, trains, and ships. 

In terms of road transportation, local and state governments play the main roles in operating public systems and in creating new roads. However, the Department of Transportation also plays an important part by assuring the funding of lower-level governments so they can improve the means of transport in the US. 

In terms of air travel, the DOT plays a more practical part as it doubles its efforts in regulating the functioning of airports and commercial airlines in order to ensure passenger safety and promote the development of the industry. Among all its composing agencies, the FAA has brought the most criticism to the Department of Transportation, as it does not appear to properly manage all potential issues.

History

Najeeb Halaby, the director of the FAA, was the person to first propose in 1965 to the aides of president Linden Johnson organizing the Department of Transport cabinets. He hoped to raise the policy at a higher level while the Defense Ministry was frustrated by issues, like supersonic transportation, that were in violation with regulations. Halaby believed the department of transportation should have certain functions authorized by the Ministry of Commerce and that his Federal Aviation Administration should be integrated in the department. 

With the help of the Budget Bureau director Charles Schultze and one of the president's special assistant's Joseph Califano, Halaby insisted on the creation of the innovative department. The initiative of creating a Department of Transportation was integrated in the legislative program of President Johnson in 1966. This moment was the launch of the Boyd Task Force with the help of which the DOT was created, and it included: the Bureau of Public Roads, the Great Lakes Pilotage Association, the Federal Aviation Agency, the Panama Canal, the Car Service Division of the Interstate Commerce Commission, the Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation, the Coast Guard, and the subsidiary function of the Civil Aeronautics Board.

The plan was approved by President Johnson and it got sent to Congress on 03/06/1966. It was finally approved on 10/15/1966 after a tedious negotiation process with the lawmakers, and the President received authorization to form the DOT. This was the most important restructuring of the government since 1947 and the creation of the National Security Act. DOT became immediately the 4th largest department organized at a cabinet-level, as it regrouped over 30 transportation functions and agencies with a total of approximately 96,000 employees.

Shortly after the birth of the DOT, a plan was drafted by the White House for the transfer of urban public transportation functions from the HUD (Dept. Of Housing and Urban Development). The responsibility for this plan was given to the newly formed Federal Transportation Administration (former Urban Mass Transit Administration).

During president’s Nixon’s administration, he dealt with several major transport-related issues, including the rescue of Penn Central Railroad, the resolution to terminate the support offered for the development of supersonic transport, airline hijackings, etc.

The Highway Safety Law authorized in 1970 the creation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Even though it added some content to departmental safety tasks, the Federal Highway Administration was originally responsible for handling the majority of roles undertaken by the new department. 

In addition to establishing another operation management and increasing the coordination workload and control span of the secretary, the Highway Safety Law divides highway management into 2 parts: 

  • Construction, maintenance, and design; and 
  • Automobile and highway safety.

The removal of the National Transportation Board outside of the DOT was approved by Congress in April 1975. It was a move that granted it independency as a federal agency.

2 years later, another crucial change took place. Brock Adams, the transportation secretary of President Jimmy Carter, created the Research and Special Programs Directorate. At that time, Adams combined pieces that were not suitable for any other existing administrations: the Hazardous Substance Transportation and Pipeline Safety Plan, the Transportation Systems Center, and various programs from the Secretary Office. The creation of the RSPA set an important precedent, as it was the making of the Secretary and not of Congress.

During the administration of Adams, a general inspector was confirmed by Senate members, after presidential appointment, in accord with the Inspector General Act of 1978. The inspector general’s task was to assist the secretary in dealing with abuse, fraud, and waste. 

Before the end of his mandate, Adams suggested that the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and the Federal Highway Administration be combined into the Surface Transportation Administration. This idea was later liked by latter secretaries of transportation as well, such as Federico Penha and James Burnley.

Multiple transportation control deregulation projects were authorized in the late 1970s: the Truck Regulatory Reform Act, the Railroad Regulatory Act, and the Household Goods Regulatory Reform Act. During this period, the leaders of the Department of Transportation set up the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization within the Office of the Secretary. It was in charge of implementing procedures and policies consistent with the regulations of the federal government, and of providing strategy guidance for women-owned, disadvantaged, and minority business, getting involved in federal assistance activities and the procurement of the department.

President Reagan’s first Minister of Transport, Andrew Lewis, was named to oversee the integration of the Maritime Administration to the Department of Transportation so that a policy for national transportation gets implemented. In addition, during the strike of the air transit controllers in August 1981, Lewis spoke to the government and ensured greater visibility of the department. Before the strike, Lewis personally negotiated with the air transit controllers. He detailed the response of the government to the movement, and there was no amnesty offered to the strikers. Lewis is also the person responsible for enacting the 1982 Surface Transportation Assistance Act which aimed to improve the safety of transportation between commercial operators. 

Elizabeth Dole, Lewis' successor, brought her experience in trade and consumer affairs to the position. At the Department of Transportation, she mainly focused on issues related to safety, including driving under the influence of alcohol, and the “Dole brake lights”, which eventually led to a 3rd brake light being added to cars. In response to a ruling of the Supreme Court, Dole permitted deadlines for installing several passive restraints, as well as air bags to automobiles, which led in a major increase of the usage of seat belts by the population, and has stimulated producers to supply new vehicles with airbags. Dole also terminated the ownership of Conrail from the Federal Railroad Administration in 1987 and pushed the creation of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, thereby transferring the administration of the Airports in Washington and Dulles to this authority.

Under the leadership of Samuel Skinner, the secretary of the Department of Transportation during the administration of George H.W. Bush, the department focused more on formulating national transportation policies. Skinner dealt with many major calamities that affected traffic, getting him the reputation of a “Master of Disasters”.

Among the crises that Skinner dealt with, there were: the 1988 bombing of the "Pan American Flight 103" over Lockerbie, Scotland, the subsequent bankruptcy of the company, the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Hurricane Hugo, the Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California, and a strike against Eastern Airlines mechanics.

In 1991, George H.W. Bush, as president of the United States, approved the ISTEA (Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act), which reauthorized the highways of the Department of Transportation, transportation programs, and road safety for a period of six years. Through this legislation, the Urban Mass Transit Administration got transformed into the Federal Transportation Administration.

Legislation also required the DOT to create 2 new organizations: the Office of Intermodalism, responsible for initiating and coordinating federal policies on intermodal transportation, and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, responsible for providing timely information related to transportation through the analysis, publishing, and compilation of comprehensive statistics on transportation. 

Federico Peña was in charge of restructuring the DOT as a section of the National Performance Evaluation during Bill Clinton’s administration. Despite the implementation of some changes, those that required the approval of Congress (such as merging the 10 administrations of the department into 3) have never been implemented. 

After being re-elected in 1966, Clinton chose Rodney Slater to replace Peña at the Department of Transportation. Slater passed the greatest legislation of public works in history, the 21st Century Transportation Equity Act, thereby helping the ISTEA regain its authorization. In his first 18 months at the Department of Transportation, the merger of aviation and railway became fashionable again. 

While Congress authorized the overhaul of the railroad, departmental negotiators helped avoid a movement against the American Railway Company. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued rules that allow end users to disable airbag switches when necessary. The U.S. and Japan finalized an open aviation agreement.

After the controversial presidential election in 2000, George Bush nominated his choice as Minister of Transportation in front of the democrats and named Norman Mineta (former US Congressman), a Japanese-American, to become the first Secretary of Transportation of the American Airlines in the Asia-Pacific region and the 1st Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation (Secretary of Commerce under the leadership of Clinton). In the period after 9/11, Mineta managed the department when lawmakers severely criticized the poorly managed security of allowing hijackers to get aboard commercial passenger airliners. On November 19, 2001, George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Safety Act, which requires the creation of a new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) under the management of the DOT to improve the safety of transportation sites and airports.

The Transportation Safety Act came into effect on the 16th of February 2002, but it did not stay long in the DOT. In 2003, the TSA got moved into the administration of the newly established Department of Homeland Security alongside the American Coast Guard.

DOT Responsibilities

As the lead agency of the federal government, the DOT is responsible for managing and supporting the US air, sea, and land travel systems. The Department of Transportation enforces, implements, and develops federal rules to regulate the use of highways and roads, air corridors and airports, seaports and railways. The DOT also provides federal grants of billions of dollars to local and state authorities each year in order to improve various transportation programs across the United States.

Major programs and offices of the Department of Transportation are:

Motor Vehicles and Roads

  • FHWA

The Federal Highway Administration maintains the system of highways connecting the states of the United States. While the responsibility of maintaining and building highways falls to local and state governments, the FHWA is in charge of providing funding. Using the excise taxes of motor vehicles and fuel, FHWA distributes funds to counties, cities, tribal governments and state agencies through 2 programs: The Federal Lands Highways Program (for roads in Indian lands, national forests, national parks, and other lands under federal stewardship); and The Federal-aid Highway Program (to local and state governments). This agency also sets up mandatory guidelines for building overpasses, bridges, and safe roads that contractors and governments must follow.

  • NHTSA

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is the agency in charge of regulating the standards of safety in the transportation and auto industry. In order to reduce costs, injuries, and fatalities associated with vehicle accidents, as its mission states, the NHTSA creates initiatives in public education, consumer protection, and research. It investigates existing defects and imposes compliance to safety standards for manufacturers. Furthermore, it helps regulate fuel economy and other related standards. It covers topics from crash tests, accident statistics, and safety defects – to teen driving, pedestrians, and child seats. 

Founded after extensive advocacy of public interest, the agency was meant to protect consumers by regulating the standards of federal safety and the automotive industry. However, in time its status changed and now it is helping the industries that were regulated by it in the past. 

  • FMCSA

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration creates safety initiatives and regulations to upgrade the safety levels of commercial auto-vehicles. In establishing the FMCSA, it was intended to lower the severity and number of accidents that involved large trucks. Among the programs this agency runs, there are the Comprehensive Safety Analysis 2010 Initiative and the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety and Security program.

Air Traffic

  • FAA

The Federal Aviation Administration supervises the commercial aviation industry. As the main supervisory body for airlines, the agency maintains a large number of standards and regulations. Delta Airlines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and other companies must comply with these standards and regulations to operate passenger transportation.

The FAA also establishes rules for pilots and airport operations. The US air transit control system is responsible for the command of military, private, and commercial aircraft throughout the United States of America under the management of the Federal Aviation Administration. 

The Federal Aviation Administration is the employer of all air transit controllers. Since its inception, the FAA has undertaken 2 main responsibilities: promoting the development of the aviation industry and ensuring passenger safety.  The Federal Aviation Administration has achieved different successes in its mission for safety, including a recent statement that allowed any airline to operate an aircraft without passing a full inspection of the federal officials. On the 11th of September 2011, when 4 civil airliners were hijacked, their reputation took a turn for the worse.

 Railroads

  • FRA

The Federal Railroad Administration is in charge of formulating and implementing railway safety regulations. The FRA also manages railway assistance programs, oversees development and research to support the improvement of railway safety, and assists in restoring railway passenger services to the Northeast Corridor.

  • STB

The Surface Transportation Board is in charge of regulating the railway industry. Its board researches new possibilities of increasing financial responsibility in the railway industry, promotes and develops railroad regulatory reforms, implements compliance to laws referring to rail operation, resolves disputes of service and railroad rate, rejects or approves proposals of railroad mergers, implements compliance of environmental regulations, decides if an enterprise can leave or enter the railway business, rejects or approves the abandonment of rail lines, and oversees railway transportation emergencies, regardless if they were caused by congestion, a transporter not respecting its obligations, or trough damage to the rail tracks.

Water Transportation

  • MARAD

The Maritime Administration is in charge of all water transit in the U.S. It oversees the integration of waterborne shipments with other branches of transportation and facilitating its usage. It also oversees the United States' commercial marine. It makes sure American ports, ships, and the environment are protected, and ensures that national security is maintained. MARAD keeps several cargo ships meant for surge sealift during national emergencies and war (the National Defense Reserve Fleet), and it assists in disposing of non-combatant ships as they get dispensable to the government.

  • SLSDC

The Saint Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation ensures the efficiency of the St. Lawrence Seaway System while being a safe, reliable, technologically advanced, and environmentally responsible marine shipping system. It assists in moving various types of cargo: grain, ore, coal, steel, and iron between international markets and North America. 

The shipping system encompasses the 5 Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River representing an area of approximately 2,300 miles from the western end of Lake Superior (twin ports of Superior, WI, and Duluth, MN) to the Gulf of St. Lawrence (Atlantic Ocean). It sets and enforces regulations together with the St. Lawrence Seaway Management Company of Canada regarding traffic control and navigation in the seaway system. Additionally, both the American and Canadian entities perform environmental protection and safety inspections of all ships sailing into the seaway.

In conclusion

The FTA (Federal Transit Administration) distributes generous grants as funding to state and local governments, as well as other organizations for several mass transit systems across the United States. Its goal is to bring online new transportation systems or to ensure the improvement of existing operations. 

The FTA is also ensuring that the grants recipients follow administrative and statutory requirements, as well as federal mandates. On account of the high cost of making new systems for public transportation, the funding of the Federal Transit Administration is crucial to each starting project. At one point in time, the agency didn’t manage to support a subway project that affected Northern Virginia and Washington, fact that angered both the critics and the supporters of the agency. 

The PHMSA (Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration) keeps the environment protected and maintains public safety during the move of hazardous materials by sea, air, or land. It oversees approximately 1,000,000 transports of dangerous materials every day, including over 60% of the petroleum products shipped in the U.S. The PHMSA enforces and develops rules for the entire pipeline transportation system, awards grants for technical and financial assistance for tribes, local communities, and states to receive training in case of hazmat emergencies. It distributes special types of permits and sponsors various research projects that aim to develop advanced upgrades to safety procedures.

The OIG (Office of the Inspector General) ensures the compliance of DOT operations and programs with U.S. law and carries out the department’s functions in an efficient manner. It makes dozens of investigations and audits every year that evaluate specialized documentation and financial records to discover if any unethical or criminal behavior, or even badly managed operations, have to be examined. Cases that reveal DOT employees not respecting the law are prosecuted by the US Attorney General.

RITA (Research and Innovative Technology Administration) manages the development and research programs of the DOT in order to create technologies meant to upgrade the transportation networks of the United States of America. It also publishes reports, provides training in fields related to transportation, and compiles statistics. This agency helps with the coordination of research efforts of over $1 billion each year.

Joe Webster
Written By:Joe Webster
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Joe Webster began his journey in the auto transport field by attending the University of Southern California (USC), where he graduated with a Bachelor of Business Marketing. 

After college, he started his career in the auto transport industry from the bottom up and has done virtually every job there is to do at A-1 Auto Transport, including but not limited to: Truck Driver, Dispatch, Sales, PR, Bookkeeping, Transport Planner, Transport Manager, International Transport Manager, Brokering, Customer Service, and Marketing. Working with his mentor Tony Taylor, Joe Webster has learned the ins and outs of this industry which is largely misunderstood. 

With over 30 years experience in the industry, we've been helping people ship their vehicles, motorcycles, RV's, heavy equipment, household goods and more across the country or overseas without a hitch. Ask us anything.

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