US Transportation Secretary Mineta resigns By John Crawley
Fri Jun 23, 5:58 PM ET
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who spearheaded an unprecedented overhaul of transportation security after the September 11 attacks, announced his resignation on Friday.
Mineta, 74, the lone Democrat in President George W. Bush's Cabinet, will leave on July 7 after 5 1/2 years on the job. He is the nation's longest serving transportation secretary and has been the most visible as well.
Transportation Department spokesman Robert Johnson said Mineta will announce his plans soon but would not say if he had another job. Johnson said Mineta told Bush earlier this week that he planned to leave.
Possible replacements mentioned by transportation insiders include Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, and trucking lobbyist Bill Graves, a former Kansas governor.
Mineta's tenure proved to be especially eventful. He took the job as the Firestone tire controversy grew with deaths linked to defective tires. Months later, he was consumed by the September 11 hijackings and the fallout from the attacks, which included new security demands and the near financial collapse of the U.S. airline industry.
Later, Mineta faced a near shutdown of the national passenger railroad, Amtrak, and the need for massive road rebuilding projects after Hurricane Katrina. In recent months, U.S. gasoline prices topped $3 for the first time, putting new pressure on struggling U.S.-based automakers.
The Transportation Department was thrown into the global spotlight by the attacks on New York and Washington. During the crisis, air controllers took the unprecedented step of clearing the skies -- nearly 5,000 planes were ordered down. The government then grounded the aviation system for three days.
Under congressional mandate, the Transportation Department created a multi-billion-dollar passenger and bag screening program for airlines and tightened security for rail, trucking and shipping.
The longer term success of these programs under the Homeland Security Department, has been mixed.
THOUGHT THREAT WAS OVERSEAS
Mineta and his deputies at the FAA said they never imagined a September 11-style attack and believed any threat against airlines was centered overseas.
The September 11 commission found aviation authorities, in security briefings for specific U.S. airlines in the spring and summer of 2001, never discussed the possibility of suicide hijackings or the use of aircraft as weapons. No new aviation security measures were taken during this time, a decision that prompted post-attack criticism.
Mineta served two decades in Congress as a representative from California before becoming the first Asian-American Cabinet officer when appointed commerce secretary by President Bill Clinton in 2000.
Mineta and Bush, according to sources, get along and Mineta has pushed the president's agenda even when it has rankled congressional allies. Mineta stood behind the Bush administration's controversial initiatives to reform Amtrak, impose a contract on air controllers and push through highway construction legislation that many in Congress said was inadequate.
He also backs the administration's preference for what critics have called a weak standard for auto fuel economy.
Mineta is of Japanese ancestry and he was placed with his family in a U.S. internment camp during World War Two.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Wilson)
Will Blakey Succeed Mineta?
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey is considered among the front runners to replace Norm Mineta as Secretary of Transportation and, if she gets the job, it could raise the stakes in the looming battle over the shape and form of the FAA's next-generation structure and operation. Mineta, who will resign effective July 7 (download the letter of resignation from Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to President Bush, here), appeared to be a moderating influence on Blakey's apparent ambition to institute widespread user fees throughout the system. He was occasionally at odds with (or seemingly confused by) the FAA's drive toward a user-pay system, particularly when it concerned GA. He publicly stated his opposition to GA user fees in several high-profile forums, including AOPA Expo in Tampa last November. However, it should also be noted that the statements were never unequivocal and he worried business aviation officials earlier this year when he seemed to suggest that business aviation was somehow distinct from general aviation (and thus ripe to be assessed user fees). On the other hand, since direction for the overhaul of the FAA seems to be coming from the Oval Office, the name on the door at the Department of Transportation may not matter much and Blakey certainly has the credentials. Before taking over the FAA, she was head of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Mineta Missed By Alphabets
Aviation groups are unanimous in their disappointment that Mineta is leaving and AOPA President Phil Boyer said in a news release that he was an ally for GA. He also said the administration should choose a successor whose values mirror Mineta's. "It is critical that the Bush Administration chooses a successor who has the same level of understanding of the value of general aviation as Norm consistently displayed," Boyer said. "He understood the importance of GA pilots and promoting safety. That's one reason he has repeatedly opposed user fees on GA." National Air Transportation Association President Jim Coyne said Mineta worked hard in cabinet to ensure aviation projects got priority. "Working with leaders in both political parties, Secretary Mineta successfully made transportation policy a top priority in Congress among both Republicans and Democrats," Coyne said.
FAA Low-Key On DOT Secretary's Departure
The FAA didn't have much to say on the resignation. Blakey issued a four-line news release that noted Mineta's long career. "His work made terrific contributions to reducing congestion and to the safest period in aviation history," Blakey said. "He has certainly left his mark on our skies." Other groups chimed in on the safety angle and the National Business Aviation Association credited Mineta with reshaping general aviation to make it able to adapt to changing market and operating conditions. "Norm Mineta's understanding of the general aviation sector helped guide to passage the General Aviation Revitalization Act, which was fundamental to the future of general aviation," said NBAA President Ed Bolen. "The nation owes Secretary Mineta a debt of gratitude for his tremendous service." Those outside the industry are lauding Mineta for his overhaul of civil aviation security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Bloomberg News' story on Mineta focused almost entirely on his security accomplishments, quoting Washington officials on his decisiveness and effectiveness in dealing with the shutting down and then return of aviation activity. But Mineta refused to take the credit in his resignation letter to President George W. Bush. "From the earliest moments of that horrible day and for weeks and months after, the personnel of the department performed quickly, courageously and effectively,'' Mineta said in his resignation letter to Bush dated June 20.
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