WASHINGTON - Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who helped rebuild confidence in U.S. airports and flying after the Sept. 11 attacks, said Friday he's leaving the Bush administration.
"It is time for me to move on to other challenges," Mineta said in a letter to President Bush.
White House press secretary Tony Snow announced the July 7 resignation. Asked why Mineta, 74, decided to leave, Snow said: "Because he wanted to."
"He was not being pushed out," Snow said. "As a matter of fact, the president and the vice president and others were happy with him. He put in five and half years - that's enough time."
Bush said Mineta - the only Democrat in his Cabinet - played a vital leadership role in strengthening the security of seaports and airports.
"Norm worked hard to help eliminate red tape and liberalize the commercial aviation market," Bush said in a statement. "After Hurricane Katrina, Norm and his team were able to rapidly repair and reopen the region's major highways, airports, seaports and pipelines."
There had been speculation for years that Mineta was on the verge of quitting, sometimes because of his health and sometimes because or rumors about a shake-up of Bush's Cabinet.
Instead, Mineta became the longest-serving transportation secretary since the department was formed in 1967.
He is one of only three original Bush Cabinet members still serving. The others are Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
After the Sept. 11 hijackings, Mineta oversaw the hasty creation of the much-maligned Transportation Security Administration, which took over responsibility for aviation security from the airlines.
Under orders from Congress, the TSA hired tens of thousands of airport screeners, put air marshals on commercial flights and installed high-tech equipment to screen air travelers and their luggage for bombs - all within a year.
The effort involved huge cost overruns, wasteful spending, long lines at big airports and too many screeners at small ones.
Mineta, though, escaped criticism for the TSA's blunders.
"It's kind of hard to fault the guy," said James Carafano, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.
"They did this amazing job setting it up. Sure, there were huge inefficiencies and mistakes, but the Manhattan Project might not have been so effective without inefficiencies and mistakes," Carafano said, referring to the creation of the atom bomb.
Ironically, Mineta's signature accomplishment of creating the TSA involved nationalizing a function that belonged to the private sector. In other areas of transportation, he has sought a bigger role for the private sector.
His unsuccessful proposal to allow private companies to run the passenger trains now operated by Amtrak generated one of the biggest controversies of his tenure as secretary.
More successful were his efforts to promote private investment in roads and bridges. Both the Chicago Skyway and the Indiana Toll Road have been leased to foreign companies in exchange for the right to collect tolls.
A Washington insider, Mineta is widely liked and widely respected for his deep knowledge of transportation issues.
"The man knew what he was doing," said Alan Pisarski, a Washington-based national transportation policy analyst. "He brought a lot of positive vibes because people knew that someone was home."
One of Mineta's achievements was the passage of a six-year, $286.4 billion highway spending plan in July, after nearly two years of wrangling with Congress.
The plan has since been criticized for containing too many "earmarks," special projects sought by lawmakers. While that bill provided far less than many members of Congress would have liked, it set records for lawmakers' pet projects - about $24 billion.
Mineta, the son of Japanese immigrants, was sent at the age of 10 to an internment camp in Wyoming with his parents.
Years later as a U.S. congressman he won passage of a law requiring the United States to apologize for sending 120,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps and pay reparations of $20,000 to each survivor.
His career has been a series of firsts for Asian-Americans.
He was first to serve as a Cabinet secretary when President Clinton appointed him to the Commerce Department in 2000. He was first to serve as mayor of a major city - his native San Jose, Calif., where the airport bears his name.
He was also first to chair a congressional committee, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.