Department of Transportation: Moving America


Fatima’s family is traveling to visit her grandparents over summer break, and they’ve decided to take the train to get there. However, the train ride does not go smoothly. Parts of the tracks are covered in rocks, the emergency lights are out, and because there are no luggage racks, they have to keep all of their bags in their laps.


Because of the federal laws that regulate issues like track and passenger safety, Fatima and her family could file a violation report with the Federal Railroad Administration, one of the eleven administrations which report to the Department of Transportation. The Department similarly regulates highways, air travel, maritime travel, mass transit, and the transportation of hazardous materials.

Department of Transportation

The United States Department of Transportation, or DOT, is a federal executive department and a unit of the executive branch. The President appoints its Secretary, who also serves in the Cabinet to advise the President. Established in 1966 to combine thirty-one separate elements of the federal government into one cohesive department, the DOT oversees and administers federal programs, regulations, and laws related to transportation. It also works to ensure safe and efficient transportation systems and to increase the productivity of American workers and businesses.

The History

An act of Congress first established the Department of Transportation on October 15, 1966, and it began operating in 1967. Initially, only five administrations reported to the DOT, but the Department soon added more as transportation methods continued to modernize, such as the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Due to the varied responsibilities of the DOT, eleven specialized administrations report to the DOT. For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration enforces maintenance, safety, certification, and operation regulations of aircraft. The network of airport towers allows controllers to direct the thousands of daily flights safely, and the administration also regulates the U.S. commercial space transportation industry, licensing their launch facilities, as well as private sector launches.

Another essential administration is the Federal Highway Administration, which coordinates with states to develop, build, and improve the National Highway System, bridges, and roads. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 created the National Highway System, and it had mixed effects. On the one hand, it connected parts of the country which had been difficult to reach before and helped change the nation’s economy, making it easier than ever to transport goods to various states. However, the construction of it often went through poorer Black and non-white neighborhoods, disproportionately affecting those who could not afford to move elsewhere and imposing racial boundaries in urban areas. It also contributed to pollution from cars, as more and more people began relying on their individual vehicles to travel.

The DOT’s history is not without controversy. In 1981, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization, or PATCO, attempted to secure better working conditions from the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA. They demanded a 32-hour workweek, a $10,000 pay increase, and a better retirement plan. The FAA offered a pay raise, but because they did not meet the workers’ other demands, the PATCO decided to go on strike. On August 3, 1981, nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers refused to work. While federal government employees are not legally allowed to strike, several government unions had gone on strike before without penalties. The PATCO strike grounded 35% of the country’s 14,200 commercial flights, and President Ronald Reagan declared the strike “a peril to national security” and ordered employees back to work, though few listened. Their actions resulted in a fine for the union, and President Reagan fired the 11,345 still-striking employees and banned them from federal service for life. 

This decision had serious consequences within the FAA, and as it usually took three years to train a new air traffic controller, they were short-staffed for almost a decade. In 1993, President Bill Clinton lifted the ban, but as of 2006, the FAA had rehired only 850 strikers. The PATCO strike had far-reaching consequences, even outside of the DOT. In the years before the PATCO strike, there were an average of 300 major strikes in America each year, while in 2018, they were down to fewer than thirty. 


Additionally, each state has its own DOT, which allocates resources from federal-aid programs and assesses the benefits and drawbacks to new programs and transportation activities on a local level, taking into account environmental concerns and potential effects on specific groups of people in the area. 

Applying It

The DOT plays a vital role in the transportation landscape of America and has everyday effects on people as well. Imagine you’re trying to get to work, and you hit a pothole, blowing out your tire. You’re docked pay for being late to work, and you also need a new tire. Or you don’t own a car, and so have to take a method of mass transit, but it’s running late, and so again, you are late for work. What do you do if you live in an area with limited mass transit or poor road maintenance? These issues primarily affect people in lower socioeconomic classes. The DOT is important because it is meant to mitigate these issues, ensuring that the roads don’t have deep potholes and that the buses and subways run on time. While there are issues of inequality in the DOT, it also tries to make transportation easy and accessible.

Think Further

  1. Were the PATCO workers right to strike? Was President Reagan right to fire those who continued to strike and issue a lifetime ban on working in the federal government? Why or why not?
  2. If you were the Secretary of the Department of Transportation, how might you address issues of inequality, lack of access to transportation, and workers’ rights? 
  3. What can you do to ensure the DOT places a greater emphasis on race and class within their programs? 


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Learn More

  1. “1981 Strike Leaves Legacy for American Workers.” NPR.Org., 
  2. “A Journey Through American Transportation: 1776 – 2017.” US Department of Transportation.,,travel%20for%20business%20and%20pleasure. 
  3. Karas, David. “Highway to Inequity: The Disparate Impact of the Interstate Highway System on Poor and Minority Communities in American Cities.” New Visions for Public Affairs, vol. 7, Apr. 2015,
  4. Our Administrations | US Department of Transportation.