CAMBRIDGE — US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Friday that while some questions still remain about the federal government’s $1 billion grant for the Green Line extension, Governor Charlie Baker’s advocacy for the project has been “noteworthy and persuasive.”
Chao, during a tour of the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge, said she and Baker have been in regular communication about the project, and chatted on the phone about it within the past week.
But with the federal budget still in flux, Chao said she doesn’t know “what the answer will be yet” on the extension.
Earlier this month, the federal government approved the MBTA’s new estimates for the long-awaited project, a major milestone. But the 4.7-mile light rail extension into Somerville and Medford still needs additional approvals for its schedule and financial plan.
The Trump administration has been criticized for several of its Cabinet appointments, but Chao has extensive government experience. As labor secretary under President George W. Bush, Chao, a Republican, was the first Asian-American woman to be appointed to a presidential Cabinet. Before that, she had served as deputy transportation secretary and director of the Peace Corps under President George H. W. Bush.
Chao emigrated from Taiwan and grew up in New York, but also has some Boston connections. She graduated from Harvard Business School, which is now home to the Ruth Mulan Chu Chao Center, named after her late mother. She visited the school Thursday to see the center, which was financed by a $40 million gift from her family.
On Friday, Chao recalled her last visit to the Volpe Center in 1990, when the federal government renamed the transportation research center after former Massachusetts governor John Volpe.
Back then, as a deputy secretary, she did not receive a personal tour, she noted.
“I was a peon then!” she said, standing behind a driving simulator that an employee had demonstrated.
A Kentucky resident who married Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 1993, Chao peppered employees with questions as they presented research from seemingly every mode of transportation.
She watched an employee operate a simulated locomotive, yelping as the train blew its loud whistle as it barreled down the track. An IT specialist simulated a flight taking off from Boston to Washington D.C. (“I’m getting dizzy,” she laughed, before the pilot was told to “level it out”), and employees showed her “sensitive but unclassified” map software that tracks vessels around the world in real time.
After the tour, she delivered remarks to a packed auditorium, where she referred to the center as a “crown jewel” of the federal transportation department. Chao praised the center’s safety research, citing statistics that documented a recent increase in traffic fatalities.
Chao also mentioned the infrastructure plan that Trump repeatedly promised on the campaign trail, one that has drawn skepticism for its potential reliance on tax credits to private businesses.
In a brief interview, she said she expected the $1 trillion plan to debut this summer after the administration tackles tax reform.
“We’re on track,” Chao said of the infrastructure bill. “There’s a great deal of discussion over the most difficult part of the initiative, which is funding it.”
The administration’s plans for transportation funding have worried many advocates. A recent budget blueprint eliminated future grants through the New Starts program, which has funded many public transit projects across the country.
Asked about those concerns, Chao said states “need to plan for the future.” Ultimately, she said, Congress will act of its own accord.
“Let’s see what the budget process will yield,” she said.Nicole Dungca can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.