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Norman Mineta, DOT’s longest-serving chief, dies at 90

Norman Y. Mineta, the longest-serving U.S. secretary of transportation in the agency’s 54-year history, the head of DOT during the 9/11 terrorist attacks and one of the most pivotal public figures in U.S. transportation in the last 40 years, died Tuesday. He was 90.

Mineta died in Edgewater, Maryland, of a heart ailment, according to a statement issued by his former chief of staff, John Flaherty, CNN reported late Tuesday.

Mineta served as DOT secretary from January 2001 until his resignation on July 7, 2006, when he returned to private industry. MIneta was the only Democrat nominated to serve in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet. He also served as secretary of commerce in the latter days of the Clinton administration, becoming the first Asian-American to hold a Cabinet post. 

Mineta represented California for more than 20 years in Congress as chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee, the House Surface Transportation Subcommittee and what was then known as the House Public Works and Transportation Committee. He was a key author of the landmark 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation and Efficiency Act, the law that, among other things, expanded commercial motor vehicle size and weight limits to the levels that exist today. 

Prior to being elected to Congress, Mineta served as mayor of San Jose, California. The San Jose airport is named in his honor.

Following the 9/11 attacks, Mineta oversaw the development of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which today manages security policies for airports, railroads, buses, pipelines, ports, mass transit systems and highways. One of Mineta’s greatest accomplishments was establishing security operations at all U.S. commercial airports by Nov. 17, 2002, about one year after the bill creating the TSA became law.

Mineta gave the critical order on 9/11 to ground all 4,546 aircraft in the air at the time of the attacks. When Monte Belger, the Federal Aviation Administration acting administrator, said the planes were being brought down based on the authority vested in airline pilots to do so, Mineta replied, “F__k pilot discretion. Get those goddamn planes down!” 

Sitting at the other end of the table in the secure bunker, Vice President Dick Cheney looked at Mineta and nodded in agreement.