Union Tribune

September 2, 2002 

Transportation chief has had tough ride since 9/11 attacks

By DANA WILKIE 
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE 

WASHINGTON For a time, the country's transportation
secretary was suffering from a persistent nosebleed.

Some suggested it was because of his grueling work schedule.

From the moment on Sept. 11 when he oversaw the grounding of
U.S. airline traffic, Norman Mineta has been on a whirlwind ride
that has landed him on "60 Minutes," on the congressional hot
seat, on countless airport tarmacs and on the minds of
Americans who probably didn't know until then that he was
running the nation's transportation system.

Much has changed for this former San Jose mayor and California
congressman since the fateful Tuesday when terrorists turned
four jetliners into weapons. The secretary is building a
transportation security agency from scratch, advising a
demanding Congress on aviation safety, traveling the country to
consult with airport officials, and juggling the politically delicate
topics of racial profiling at airports and whether to arm pilots
with guns.

"This was a huge meal to digest in terms of logistics and
management," said Peter VanDoren, a transportation expert
with the Cato Institute, a think tank that advocates limited
government. "How would you like to be handed the job of hiring
up to (60,000) new employees? You could take the best
Harvard Business School team and it would still be tough to do."

"Tough" is a good word to describe Mineta's past months.

Shortly after taking office in January 2001, Mineta's biggest
concerns were looming airline strikes, President Bush's plan to
cut $331 million from airport improvement projects and
whether pilots who steered too far from storms were
contributing to airline delays. As the lone Democrat in Bush's
administration, Mineta was successfully walking a tightrope
between loyalty to Bush and loyalty to congressional Democrats
he had known for 21 years as a Silicon Valley representative.

Those things have changed.

After the daunting tasks that faced him just after the terrorists
struck grounding airplanes, creating security measures,
restarting the aviation system the 70-year-old Mineta began
building an enormous new agency to protect the nation's planes,
ports, roads and rails.

By late December, the new Transportation Security
Administration must be ready to screen the millions of people
and bags that move through airports every day. Hiring the tens
of thousands of workers needed for the job is, in the view of
some, a next-to-impossible task.

"It's an unprecedented challenge," said Mineta spokesman Chet
Lunner. "There hasn't been any equivalent . . . where an agency
of this size with this important a mission was created in so short
a time.

But it wasn't long before the new agency was being criticized for
becoming a bloated, free-spending bureaucracy whose leaders
were unorganized and heavy-handed. After many in the airline
industry complained, Mineta forced the resignation of agency
Director John Magaw in July.

"Concerns were building that this agency was headed off course,"
said Michael Wascom, a spokesman for the Air Transport
Association of America, which represents major airlines. "They
were coming into airports with the mentality that it was 'our way
or the highway,' and a lot of people resented that."

Also gone are the days when Mineta could please both political
parties.

Last fall, when Congress debated the airport security bill which
eventually created the Transportation Security Administration
and made all airport screeners federal employees Mineta had
to lobby against another plan that his fellow Democrats
supported. 

When Mineta warned in July that the agency could miss
deadlines for hiring screeners and installing bomb-detection
equipment, Democrats complained that he should have voiced
reservations about the deadlines before he urged them to
support the GOP-backed legislation.

"These were very unworkable and unreachable deadlines in the
first place," VanDoren said. "A good Cabinet officer defends his
agency against tasks it cannot do, and I don't think (Mineta) did
that."

But from those in the airline industry, Mineta won points for
being blunt.

"When Mineta believes that a certain deadline is unattainable,
he's said as much," Wascom said. "He's been roundly criticized
for it, but he has spoken the truth."

There is little doubt that Americans paid far more attention to
their transportation secretary after Sept. 11 than they did
before.

"The pre-Sept. 11 Norm Mineta was not well-known outside the
industry," Lunner said. "Today he's a recognizable figure in ways
that previous secretaries weren't."

Mineta, a likable, liberal lawmaker with a reputation for forging
agreement among political opposites, has said he feels free to
disagree with Bush, but that he won't do so publicly.

"I consider myself a team player," Mineta has said. "Once I make
my pitch and repitch and repitch I salute and go on."

Critics fear that since Sept. 11, Mineta has let other
transportation concerns languish. The public's frustration with
jammed roads and the quality of mass transit continues to grow,
they say, as do concerns about safety. They say Mineta needs to
pay attention to the underfunded National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration, whether to create new rules to prevent
rollovers among sport utility vehicles, and the coming debate on
road spending.

"We're looking to the DOT for some leadership," said Judie Stone,
president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "Sept. 11
didn't change the fact that 94 percent of the transportation
fatalities in this country are still motor vehicle crashes."