President Obama’s recent tapping of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as Department of Transportation secretary sparked speculation on the political future of the young Democratic rising star and what the pick means for the administration’s high-speed rail agenda.
But for shippers and transportation providers, the real questions are: Does Foxx, a relative freight transportation novice, have the chops to head the agency, and how can he support the freight industry other than by being an administration cheerleader?
To the first question, it’s too early to tell. Just because Foxx doesn’t have the freight industry recognition as rumored DOT chief contenders — former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell and National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman — doesn’t mean he isn’t up for the job.
Outgoing DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, after all, didn’t have much transportation experience when he filled the post, but he has proved to be a relentless advocate for investment in highways, railroads, ports and bicycle lanes, said Janet Kavinoky, director of transportation infrastructure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Although Foxx’s push for light-rail and streetcars in Charlotte has attracted the most attention, the 42-year-old former attorney’s transportation experience goes beyond passenger transit. Foxx helped Norfolk Southern Railway get the go-ahead to build an intermodal rail facility between two runways at Charlotte Douglas Airport. The terminal, which has been in the works for 15 years, will open later this year.
“When Anthony became mayor in 2009, Charlotte, like the rest of the country, was going through a bruising economic crisis,” Obama said in his April 29 nomination speech. “But the city has managed to turn things around. The economy is growing. There are more jobs, more opportunity. And if you ask Anthony how that happened, he’ll tell you that one of the reasons is that Charlotte made one of the largest investments in transportation in the city’s history.”
The nomination is expected to gain Senate approval.
The coming months will be critical for freight advocates to “spend time educating him” on the industry needs, Kavinoky said. In the meantime, the DOT already has a strong team led by Deputy Secretary John Porcari and Polly Trottenberg, undersecretary for policy, that is working to create a national freight policy and network, said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition of America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, a Washington-based advocacy group.
“The secretary can play an important role in articulating the issues and driving the system,” said Emil Frankel, director of transportation policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center. “He can take advantage of the bully pulpit.”
Aside from echoing Obama’s push for infrastructure investment, Foxx can make a mark on the freight industry by ensuring grant and loan awards go smoothly and get the attention they deserve, he said. The DOT later this year will award $474 million in grants through the fifth round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, program.
And MAP-21, the surface transportation bill passed last year, increases the amount of federal financing for transportation projects, giving Foxx another way to boost freight infrastructure. The Transportation Infrastructure Financing Innovation Act now has annual funding of $1 billion, enabling about $10 billion worth of loans.
It’s unclear how much Foxx can do to help Congress face its largest transportation challenge: passing the next surface transportation bill, as the current version expires Sept. 30, 2014.
To balance the Highway Trust Fund, the main engine of highway spending, Congress will have to raise fuel taxes by 8 cents a gallon or trim annual spending by $4 billion to $54 billion, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis. A fuels tax hike is politically unpopular, in Congress and with the Obama administration, and some House Republicans oppose using the general fund to fill the next HTF shortfall. That spells trouble for a new surface transportation bill.
Even once-Republican House member LaHood, who had good relationships on both sides of the aisle, didn’t have any “slam dunks” in convincing his former chamber to pass a surface transportation bill to the liking of his boss, Blakey said. Like LaHood, Foxx likely will have the unenviable task of trying to influence legislation without a clear guiding hand from the Obama administration.
Typically, the commander in chief submits “presidential messages” and the DOT secretary gives “legislative proposals” to shape key transportation legislation, but the Obama administration hasn’t, said Mortimer Downey, a former DOT secretary. Instead, Obama has outlined his desire to spend more on infrastructure in speeches and budget proposals, both of which fail to disclose how increased spending would be paid for.
LaHood excelled at driving home the president’s message, but unless the revenue question is answered, the call for more infrastructure spending expected to come out of Foxx will ring increasingly hollow.