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Elaine Chao
Elaine Chao provides testimony to senators during a hearing on her nomination to become transportation secretary. Chao’s husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is seated behind her to the left. (Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee via Video)

President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, held back from a commitment to continue supporting transit projects that are already in the pipeline for the Seattle region during today’s Senate confirmation hearing.

The opportunity to do so came during questioning by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who made reference to Washington state’s rapid economic growth.

“We have growth, we have an economic engine, but we desperately, desperately, desperately, desperately need the infrastructure investment,” Cantwell told Chao.

In November, voters in King, Pierce Snohomish counties approved a $54 billion package to expand Sound Transit bus and rail service over the next 25 years. However, the Sound Transit 3 package assumes that the federal government will kick in $4.7 billion to cover some of the construction costs.

Cantwell asked Chao whether federal aid would continue to go to Sound Transit projects already in the pipeline.

“If I am confirmed, I need to take a look at those projects,” Chao replied. “There are many projects that are on the books, and there are different reasons why some are faster, some are slower. So I need to take a look at what is happening with each of those projects.”

Cantwell said she’d follow up with Chao on the issue.

Trump has talked about a trillion-dollar initiative to upgrade America’s infrastructure, but many of the budgetary details still have to be filled in. As much as $137 billion would come in the form of tax credits. Other options include putting tolls on roads and bridges.

“It will be interesting to see how this is put together,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chao’s husband, said last month. “I hope we avoid a trillion-dollar stimulus.”

Today Chao said a task force would be formed to look at the financing options. “The government does not have the resources to address all the infrastructure needs within our country,” she told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Sen. Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat who has been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2020, asked Chao whether the federal government would be making any direct investments in infrastructure. “I believe the answer is yes,” Chao said.

Chao ranks among the Cabinet nominees most likely to win quick Senate confirmation. The Taiwan-born immigrant served as deputy transportation secretary under President George H.W. Bush, and as labor secretary during the George W. Bush administration. She’s also been director of the Peace Corps and CEO of United Way.

Cantwell said she was “enthusiastic” about having Chao in charge of the Transportation Department, which deals with road and rail travel and maritime transport, plus aviation, drones and commercial spaceflight under the aegis of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Washington state’s junior senator raised another issue during her allotted time for questioning, relating to transporting crude oil through the state by rail. Chao acknowledged that she’s already been discussing the issue with Cantwell privately.

“The prospect of having these products go through urban areas is of great concern,” Chao said. However, she added that it’s “premature” to delve into the issue in depth.

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