DOT contender sidesteps questions on succeeding LaHood

National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, who is a possible contender to become Transportation secretary, said Wednesday that future appointments would not affect her agency's current investigations. 

Hersman has reportedly emerged as President Obama's top choice to lead the Transportation Department in his second term. Secretary Ray LaHood announced last week that he was retiring.

Hersman told a group of reporters Wednesday that the NTSB's investigations are conducted mostly by technical staffers.  

"We have the most amazing technical staff," she said at a breakfast that was sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "They are the one who go out to the accident sites. They do the investigations. They work in the lab. They are the backbone of the NTSB." 

Hersman declined to say if she had been contacted by the White House about becoming Transportation secretary, maintaining that she is only focusing on the job she has now. 

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Hersman added that the NTSB was built to withstand turnover, which she attributed to the agency's "incredible design."

"They are what makes the NTSB who we are," she said of the agency's staff. "It's their work day in and day out, from one board to another, from one chairman to another, that produces that quality product. Board members serve for terms."

Hersman has emerged as a front-runner for the position this week following the  withdrawal of another leading candidate, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D).

The White House has generally been mum about the Transportation secretary search, but the Obama administration has not pushed back on the reports that Hersman is the leading candidate to replace LaHood.

The veteran transportation accident investigator has at least one prominent backer on Capitol Hill in Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who will be chairman of the eventual Transportation secretary nominee's confirmation hearing.

Prior to being appointed to the NTSB by former President George W. Bush, Hersman worked for Rockefeller's Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The West Virginia senator has pushed hard for Hersman, who is also a West Virginia native, since LaHood's initial announcement of his retirement.

"I believe that Debbie Hersman has the experience and gravitas to be a terrific secretary of Transportation," Rockfeller said this week.

"Over her tenure as [chairwoman] of the NTSB, she has been a constant reassuring presence during our most difficult transportation accidents," Rockefeller continued. "She is an articulate, proven leader who understands that safety comes first. Debbie also knows the importance of rebuilding our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and would be an effective and persuasive advocate for investing in our roads, bridges, and aviation system.”

Hersman was careful on Wednesday in responding to questions about the department. 

Asked to identify changes she would recommend to the DOT's budget if the agency faces sequestration cuts, Hersman said "with respect to the DOT, I'm going to stay in my lane and talk about what the NTSB is doing." 

Hersman said the NTSB was preparing for the possibility that it would have to cut back if Congress allows the across-the-boards agency cuts to go ahead. 

She also said the agency would provide an update on its most high-profile investigation, into electrical problems in the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" airplane, on Thursday.

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