Transportation Department

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Transportation Department

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) establishes overall transportation policy for the United States. Under the DOT umbrella are 11 administrations whose jurisdictions include highway planning, development, and construction; urban mass transit; railroads; aviation; and the safety of ports, highways, and oil and gas pipelines. Decisions made by the department in conjunction with appropriate state and local officials can significantly affect other programs such as land planning, energy conservation, scarce resource utilization, and technological change.

The DOT was established by Congress in 1966 (49 U.S.C.A. § 102) "to assure the coordinated, effective administration of the transportation programs of the Federal Government" and to develop "national transportation policies and programs conducive to the provision of fast, safe, efficient, and convenient transportation at the lowest cost consistent therewith." The department became operational in April 1967 with elements transferred from eight other major departments and agencies. As of 2003, it consists of the office of the secretary and 11 operating administrations whose heads report directly to the secretary and have highly decentralized authority.

Office of the Secretary of Transportation

The DOT is administered by the secretary of transportation, who is the principal adviser to the president in all matters relating to federal transportation programs. The secretary administers the department with the assistance of a deputy secretary of transportation, an associate deputy secretary, the assistant secretaries, a general counsel, the inspector general, and several directors and chairpersons.

Federal Aviation Administration

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), formerly the Federal Aviation Agency, was established by the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (49 U.S.C.A. § 106) and became a component of the DOT in 1967. The FAA is charged with regulating air commerce in ways that best promote its development and safety and fulfill the requirements of national defense; controlling the use of the navigable airspace of the United States by regulating both civil and military operations in that airspace in the interest of safety and efficiency; promoting, encouraging, and developing civil Aeronautics; and consolidating research and development with respect to air navigation facilities.

The FAA is responsible for installing and operating air navigation facilities; developing and operating a common system of air traffic control and navigation for both civil and military aircraft; and developing and implementing programs and regulations to control aircraft noise, sonic booms, and other environmental effects of civil aviation.

In addition, the FAA operates a network of airport traffic control towers, air route traffic control centers, and flight service stations. It develops air traffic rules and regulations and allocates the use of the airspace. It also provides for the security control of air traffic to meet national defense requirements.

The FAA is responsible for the location, construction or installation, maintenance, operation, and quality assurance of federal visual and electronic aids to air navigation. The agency operates and maintains voice/data communications equipment, radar facilities, computer systems, and visual display equipment at flight service stations, airport traffic control towers, and air route traffic control centers.

The agency maintains a national plan of airport requirements, administers a grant program for the development of public use airports to assure and improve safety and to meet current and future airport capacity needs, evaluates the environmental impacts of airport development, and administers an airport noise compatibility program with the goal of reducing noncompatible uses around airports. It also develops standards and technical guidance on airport planning, design, safety, and operations and provides grants to assist public agencies in airport system and master planning and airport development and improvement.

The FAA provides a system for registering aircraft and recording documents that affect title or interest in the aircraft, aircraft engines, propellers, appliances, and spare parts.

Under the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 and the International Aviation Facilities Act (49 U.S.C.A. § 1151), the agency promotes aviation safety and civil aviation abroad by exchanging aeronautical information with foreign aviation authorities; certifying foreign repair stations, air personnel, and mechanics; negotiating bilateral airworthiness agreements to facilitate the import and export of aircraft and components; and providing technical assistance and training in all areas of the agency's expertise.

One important FAA function is the regulation and promotion of the U.S. commercial space transportation industry. It licenses the private-sector launching of space payloads on expendable launch vehicles and commercial space launch facilities. The FAA also sets insurance requirements for the protection of persons and property and ensures that space transportation activities comply with U.S. domestic and foreign policy.

Federal Highway Administration

The Federal Highway Administration became a component of the DOT in 1967. It administers the highway transportation programs of the DOT under Title 23 U.S.C.A., and other pertinent legislation. The administration oversees highway transportation in its broadest scope, seeking to coordinate highways with other modes of transportation to achieve the most effective balance of transportation systems and facilities.

The administration administers the federal aid highway program, which provides funding to the states to assist in constructing highways and making highway and traffic operations more efficient. This program provides for the improvement of approximately 159,000 miles of the National Highway System, which includes the 43,000-mile dwight d. eisenhower system of interstate and defense highways and other public roads. The federal government generally provides 90 percent of the funding for the construction and preservation of the interstate system, and the relevant states provide 10 percent. For projects not on the interstate system and most projects on other roads, 80 percent of the funding comes from the federal government and 20 percent from the states.

The administration is also responsible for the Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program, which assists in the inspection, analysis, and rehabilitation or replacement of bridges on public roads. In addition, it administers an emergency program to assist in the repair or reconstruction of federal aid highways and certain federal roads that have suffered serious damage over a wide area from natural disasters or catastrophic failures.

The Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) Program provides funding to reduce Air Pollution. Transportation improvement projects and programs that reduce transportation-related emissions are eligible for funding. Funds can be used for highway, transit, and other transportation purposes.

The administration is responsible for several highway-related safety programs, including a state and community safety program jointly administered with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a highway safety construction program to eliminate road hazards and improve rail-highway crossing safety. These safety construction programs fund activities that remove, relocate, or shield roadside obstacles; identify and correct hazardous locations; eliminate or reduce hazards at railroad crossings; and improve signs, pavement markings, and signals.

Under the provisions of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (23 U.S.C.A. § 101), the administration is authorized to establish and maintain a national network for trucks, review state programs regulating truck size and weight, and assist in obtaining uniformity among the states in commercial motor carrier registration and taxation reporting. The administration works cooperatively with states and private industry to achieve uniform safety regulations, inspections and fines, licensing, registration and taxation, and accident data for motor carriers.

The agency also exercises federal regulatory jurisdiction over the safety performance of all commercial motor carriers engaged in interstate or foreign commerce. It deals with more than 330,000 carriers and approximately 36,000 shippers of hazardous materials. The administration conducts reviews at the carrier's facilities to determine the safety of the carrier's over-the-road operations. These reviews may lead to prosecution or other sanctions against violators of the federal motor carrier safety regulations or the hazardous materials transportation regulations.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 (49 U.S.C.A. § 2701) authorizes the administration to establish national standards for a single commercial vehicle driver's license for state issuance, a national information system clearinghouse for commercial driver's license information, knowledge and skills tests for licensing commercial vehicle drivers, and disqualification of drivers for serious traffic offenses, including alcohol and drug abuse. The agency administers the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program, a partnership between the federal government and the states, under the provisions of sections 401–404 of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 (49 U.S.C.A. §§ 2301–2304).

Federal Railroad Administration

The purpose of the Federal Railroad Administration is to promulgate and enforce rail safety regulations, administer railroad financial assistance programs, conduct research and development in support of improved railroad safety and national rail transportation policy, provide for the rehabilitation of Northeast Corridor rail passenger service, and consolidate government support of rail transportation activities.

The administration administers and enforces the federal laws and related regulations designed to promote safety on railroads and exercises jurisdiction over all areas of rail safety, such as track maintenance, inspection standards, equipment standards, and operating practices. It also administers and enforces regulations enacted pursuant to railroad safety legislation for locomotives, signals, safety appliances, power brakes, hours of service, transportation of explosives and other dangerous articles, and the reporting and investigation of railroad accidents. Railroad and related industry equipment, facilities, and records are inspected, and required reports are reviewed. In addition, the administration educates the public about safety at highway-rail grade crossings and the danger of trespassing on rail property.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was established by the Highway Safety Act of 1970 (23 U.S.C.A. § 401). The NHTSA carries out programs concerning the safety performance of motor vehicles and related equipment and the safety of motor vehicle drivers, occupants, and pedestrians. The administration conducts general motor vehicle programs aimed at reducing the damage that motor vehicles sustain as a result of crashes. It also administers the federal odometer law, issues theft prevention standards, and promulgates average fuel economy standards for passenger and nonpassenger motor vehicles.

Under the NHTSA program, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards are issued that prescribe safety features and levels of safety-related performance for vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. Damage susceptibility, crashworthiness, and theft prevention are studied and reported to Congress and the public.

The Energy Policy and Conservation Act, as amended (42 U.S.C.A. § 6201), sets automotive fuel economy standards for passenger cars for model years 1985 and thereafter. The NHTSA has the option of altering the standards for the post-1985 period. The NHTSA develops and promulgates mandatory fuel economy standards for light trucks for each model year and administers the fuel economy regulatory program. The administration also establishes rules for collecting and reporting information concerning manufacturers' ability to meet fuel economy standards. This information is used to evaluate technological alternatives and manufacturers' economic ability to meet fuel economy standards.

The NHTSA maintains a national register of information on individuals who have had their licenses to operate a motor vehicle revoked, suspended, canceled, or denied, or who have been convicted of certain traffic-related violations, such as driving while impaired by alcohol or other drugs. The information obtained from the register assists state licensing officials in determining whether to issue a driver's license.

The Highway Safety Act provides federal matching funds to states and local communities to assist them with their highway safety programs. Areas of primary emphasis include impaired driving, occupant protection, motorcycle safety, police traffic services, pedestrian and bicycle safety, emergency medical services, speed control, and traffic records. The NHTSA provides guidance and technical assistance in all of these areas. The Highway Safety Act also provides incentive funds for encouraging states to implement effective impaired-driving programs and to encourage the use of safety belts and motorcycle helmets.

Federal Transit Administration

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) was established as a component of the DOT in 1968. The FTA works with public and private mass transportation companies to develop improved mass transportation facilities, equipment, techniques, and methods. The administration encourages the planning and establishment of area-wide urban mass transportation systems, helps state and local governments finance such systems, and provides financial assistance to state and local governments to increase mobility for older, disabled, and economically disadvantaged persons.

Maritime Administration

The Maritime Administration was transferred to the DOT in 1981. The Maritime Administration conducts programs to aid in the development, promotion, and operation of the U.S. merchant marine. It is also charged with organizing and directing emergency merchant ship operations.

Through the Maritime Subsidy Board, the Maritime Administration handles subsidy programs under which the federal government, subject to statutory limitations, pays the difference between certain costs of operating ships under the U.S. flag and foreign competitive flags. The government also subsidizes the difference between the costs of constructing ships in U.S. and foreign shipyards. The Maritime Administration provides financing guarantees for the construction, reconstruction, and reconditioning of ships and enters into capital construction fund agreements that grant tax deferrals on moneys to be used for the acquisition, construction, or reconstruction of ships.The administration constructs or supervises the construction of merchant-type ships for the federal government. It helps industry generate increased business for U.S. ships and conducts programs to promote domestic shipping and to develop ports, facilities, and intermodal transport.

Under emergency conditions the Maritime Administration charters government-owned ships to U.S. operators, requisitions or procures ships owned by U.S. citizens, and allocates them to meet defense needs. It maintains a National Defense Reserve Fleet of government-owned ships that it operates through ship managers and general agents when required for the national defense. An element of this activity is the Ready Reserve Force, consisting of a number of ships that can be activated for quick response.

The administration regulates sales to Aliens and transfers to foreign registry of ships that are fully or partially owned by U.S. citizens. It also disposes of government-owned ships found nonessential for national defense.

The administration operates the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, New York, where young people are trained to become merchant marine officers, and conducts training in shipboard firefighting in Earle, New Jersey, and Toledo, Ohio. It also administers a federal assistance program for the maritime academies operated by California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, and Texas.

St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation

The St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation was established by Congress in 1954 (33 U.S.C.A. §§ 981–990) as an operating administration of the DOT. The corporation, a wholly government-owned enterprise, is responsible for the development, operation, and maintenance of the part of the St. Lawrence Seaway that is between the port of Montreal and Lake Erie and within the territorial limits of the United States. It is the function of the Seaway Corporation to provide a safe, efficient, and effective water artery for maritime commerce, both in peacetime and in time of national emergency.

The corporation coordinates its activities with its Canadian counterpart, particularly with respect to overall operations, traffic control, navigation aids, safety, navigation dates, and related programs designed to fully develop the seaway system. The corporation encourages the development of traffic through the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence Seaway system in order to contribute to the economic and environmental development of the entire region.

Research and Special Programs Administration

The Research and Special Programs Administration was established in 1977. It is responsible for hazardous materials transportation and pipeline safety, transportation emergency preparedness, safety training, and transportation research and development activities.

The september 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when four commercial airliners were hijacked by terrorists who flew two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York City and one into the Pentagon (the fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania), had a significant impact on the Department of Transportation. In November 2001, Congress passed legislation that created within the DOT the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an agency established to increase airport security. The following November the Homeland Security Act was passed, which authorized the establishment of the Homeland Security Department. On March 1, 2003, the new department assumed management of the United States Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration, both of which had been operating administrations of the DOT.

Although no longer in charge of overseeing the protection of airline passengers, the Department of Transportation remained responsible for the safety of Americans traveling on the nation's highways. To that end the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) was making efforts in early 2003 to collaborate with other DOT components, federal agencies, state and local officials, business associations and the private sector to develop a plan for "emergency transportation operations preparedness." The purpose of the plan is to engage in regional and local cooperation and planning to facilitate the safe, continuous movement of people and goods during a national security event or emergency.

Further readings

Cobb, Roger W., and David M. Primo. 2003. The Plane Truth: Airline Crashes, the Media, and Transportation Policy. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

Sweet, Kathleen M. 2002. Terrorism and Airport Security. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen.Transportation Department. Available online at <> (accessed August 14, 2003).


Airlines; Automobiles.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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