U.S. Department of Transportation Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Because the Department of Transportation oversees all forms of transportation in the United States, on land, water, and air, a wide range of businesses from airlines to railroads to shipping to automobile manufacturers are affected by its polices. DOT took over thirty different transportation agencies and programs from other departments of the federal government when it was created. Most of these had significant connections to businesses.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) was created in the flurry of legislative activity initiated by Lyndon B. Johnson in the greatest set of bureaucratic changes since the Great Depression. The act creating DOT was signed into law on October 15, 1966, and the agency began operating on April 1, 1967. The newly created department gathered together some thirty different agencies and programs that had been scattered throughout the federal government. Many of these came from the Department of Commerce, which highlighted the business connections that would be one of the most prominent characteristics of DOT. Other programs that became part of DOT were programs previously under the Department of Defense that had commercial rather than military applications.Transportation, U.S. Department of

Only a few programs have ever been removed from the department. The National Transportation Safety Board, part of the original DOT, became a separate regulatory body in 1975 because it was inappropriate for an accident-investigating body to be subject to the control of DOT because of its strong links with transportation businesses. Similarly, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Safety Administration were added to Department of Homeland Security in the belief that such defense-oriented departments should not be subject to excessive commercial pressure.

Divisions of DOT

The Office of the Secretary is the policy-level office coordinating all the divisions in the Department of Transportation. There are eleven individual operating administrations within the department, each of which has important business constituencies. The Office of the Inspector General–a division in all cabinet-level agencies–was created as a staff agency to maintain the integrity of the department.

The Federal Aviation Administration oversees U.S. airlines and airports, including the air traffic control system. Accidents causing loss of life are investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, an independent agency since 1975.

The Federal Highway Administration is responsible for administering the Federal-Aid Highway Construction Program, which provides federal funds for constructing and maintaining the federal highway system, including interstates, U.S. highways, and many state highways. This program is funded through the gasoline tax. The Federal Highway Administration also manages the Federal Lands Highway Program, which provides for the construction of roads within federal lands not subject to any state jurisdiction, such as those in the Forest Service and the National Park Service. This division is in very close contact with any businesses involved in the planning and construction of U.S. highways.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is one of the most significant agencies within DOT because it provides a key regulatory function in setting standards regarding automobile safety and fuel economy that automobile manufacturers must follow.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was created on January 1, 2000, to reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities involving large trucks and buses. This agency has a direct effect on businesses transporting goods and people across the country. It also has a hazardous materials regulatory function.

The Federal Railroad Administration oversees the railroad industry. It promulgates and enforces rail safety regulations, conducts research on rail safety, manages railroad assistance programs, and is responsible for trying to rebuild Northeast Corridor rail passenger service.

The Federal Transit Administration conducts technical research and provides funding for local public transit systems in the United States. Local public transit systems include buses, subways, commuter rail, light rail, monorail, streetcars, passenger ferryboats, trolleys, inclined railways, and other people carriers, including commuter vans.

The Maritime Administration maintains the National Defense Reserve Fleet, which makes ships available in national emergencies. The shipping industry provides all the ships that make up the National Defense Reserve Fleet, so it has a direct connection with the Maritime Administration. Other programs in the administration provide subsidies for shipping and operate the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy.

The St. Lawrence Seaway Development Corporation is a not-for-profit corporation responsible for the safety and efficiency of shipping through the St. Lawrence Seaway. It coordinates its activity with a comparable not-for-profit corporation in Canada.

The Research and Innovative Technologies Administration (RITA) is one of the divisions added to DOT. It gathers important data, research findings, and technology within the department. In addition to promoting safety and efficiency, RITA is also charged with attempting to reduce costs within the department. The administration supervises DOT’s five-year research-and-development plan.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration was brought into being by legislation on November 30, 2004. The sharp increase in the number of shipments of hazardous materials to about one million per day led to the creation of this new program. As oil and natural gas pipelines are in essence a form of shipment of hazardous materials, this agency is in charge of both hazardous-materials shipment and pipelines.

The Surface Transportation Board was created in 1995 to take the place of the Interstate Commerce Commission, which was abolished after more than a century of service. The Surface Transportation Board is a quasi-judicial regulatory body that has jurisdiction over railroad rates and services; trucking, moving van, and noncontiguous ocean-shipping company rate matters; certain intercity passenger bus matters; and pipelines rates and services not covered by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Homeland Security Act of 2002 authorized the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, which, on March 1, 2003, assumed management of the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration, formerly part of DOT.

Successes and Challenges

There can be little doubt that the Department of Transportation has played a very constructive role in developing award-winning transportation policy among its various business constituencies. However, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has deprived DOT of badly needed funds. The chief challenge facing DOT is the lack of funding for transportation infrastructure in the United States. The collapse of the I-35 Interstate highway bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 highlighted the problem of the relative age of parts of the American infrastructure, including railways and airports. For example, the airline industry needs significant new sources of funds to implement an air traffic control system using global positioning satellites as its primary source of locating aircraft, but DOT is unable to help the industry.

Further Reading
  • Arnold, Peri E. Making the Managerial Presidency: Comprehensive Reorganization Planning, 1905-1996. 2d ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Serious academic examination of the efforts to reform the bureaucracy of the national government to improve managerial innovation.
  • Bourne, Russell. Americans on the Move: A History of Waterways, Railways, and Highways. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 1995. A broad overview of U.S. transportation policy from early in American history to the book’s writing.
  • Davidson, Janet F., and Michael S. Sweeney. On the Move: Transportation and the American Story. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian National Museum of American History/ National Geographic, 2003. A solid, if popular, look at transportation policy throughout American history.
  • Dilger, Robert Jay. American Transportation Policy. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003. Thorough academic examination of transportation policy.
  • Larson, John Lauritz. Internal Improvement: National Public Works and the Promise of Popular Government in the Early United States. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. A history of transportation policy from early in U.S. history that sheds light on the federal policy situation at the end of the twentieth century.

Air traffic controllers’ strike

Air transportation industry



Local public transportation


Shipping industry

Trucking industry

Categories: History