By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
On April 29, President Barack Obama nominated Anthony Foxx as the next U.S. transportation secretary to succeed Ray LaHood.
Foxx has served as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., since 2009. During his tenure, he has supported an extension of the Charlotte Area Transit System's light-rail network, as well as the development of a streetcar system.
On April 30, Progressive Railroading checked in with Eno Center for Transportation Executive Director Joshua Schank to get his thoughts on what Foxx would bring to the table as U.S. Department of Transportation chief. Our questions and his lightly edited responses follow.
Progressive Railroading: What qualifications does Foxx have that could help him as the next U.S. transportation secretary?
Schank: "He doesn't come as a subject matter expert, but he but does have executive experience, and that helps when you're running an enormous bureaucracy. He also comes with an understanding of how urban transportation and, to some extent, intercity transit work because he has direct experience with it. In some ways, as elected officials go, a former governor or mayor has a lot more experience with transportation directly than, say, a member of Congress. But he is lacking substantial federal policy experience and he has not been involved in transportation policy at the federal level in a deep and meaningful way.
"I think he'll learn it as he goes and that's fine. To some extent, it was true for Secretary LaHood, as well. He was a member of Congress, but he wasn't steeped in transportation. [Foxx] is not being sought after for his transportation policy expertise, but sought after because he is an elected official, so he's likely to be good as public figure. He has a basic transportation understanding and an understanding of urban transportation, and clearly he's someone viewed as having demonstrated competent leadership."
Progressive Railroading: What kind of message, if any, is the Obama administration sending by selecting Foxx?
Schank: "In the transportation world, I'm not sure there is a message. You can read into it and say, 'Oh, the administration is choosing a mayor and therefore will be focused on metropolitan transportation issues,' but I think they already have been, so I'm not sure it represents a major change in policy. But outside transportation, he is a Democrat who helped organize the [Democratic National] convention and did a very good job of it. It shows party loyalty and he's a minority, so [Obama] is showing an attempt to improve the diversity of the cabinet."
Progressive Railroading: What are some of the top priorities the new transportation secretary will need to focus on, particularly as it relates to rail?
Schank: "He’s got a real challenge when it comes to the high-speed rail program and what remains of that. It's going to be important to try and turn it into something that can be looked at as a positive step and legacy for the president. Right now, we have California going in fits and starts, we have a few other projects around the country, and then there's the Northeast Corridor, which is just so hard to tackle. It's hard to look at any of those and say, 'Wow, this president made a huge difference with high-speed rail.' But he has advanced the ball a little bit here and there. Whether this can be accelerated at all under Foxx's leadership remains to be seen, but he faces an enormous uphill battle.
"The bigger question will be Amtrak and … what opportunities are there, as well as the classic Amtrak problems of how do you improve service, deal with long-distance routes — all those things are things this administration has stayed out of … and I don’t know that they'll get involved in that now, either."
Progressive Railroading: What legacy do you think Ray LaHood leaves behind?
Schank: "When people think of Ray LaHood, they'll think of high-speed rail, livability and distracted driving. Those are the issues that have become associated with him. I think he can be very proud of the execution of the TIGER program — that's been a real example of some good government work that's been going on in transportation in terms of allocating funding to get useful and innovative projects. He can also be very proud of improvements MAP-21 created and implementing performance measures for transportation investment.
"I think the places where he has not necessarily met expectations or hopes have been in the areas of securing long-term, sustainable funding for surface transportation and the organization of air traffic control system, and I hope Secretary Foxx can tackle those issues."
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