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Foxx faces transportation fights

Foxx faces transportation fights

Anthony FoxxAnthony FoxxFeds order DC Metro to take new safety actions Emanuel flips the bird when asked about 2020 Feds push for more transparency over in-flight phone calls MORE was seen as a transit guy when he was tapped to be President Obama’s second-term Transportation Secretary, but his tenure at the helm of the department has been marked by problems involving airplanes, trucks and freight rail.

Foxx, the former mayor of Charlotte, N.C., who is closely associated with the development of that city’s light rail system, is now halfway through his term as Transportation chief.

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He is serving at a time of great uncertainty for funding for the nation’s highways and aviation system, but Foxx said he is prepared for the challenges, having been affected by transportation since before his birth.

“Going back three generations, my grandmother’s father drove a truck,” Foxx said in an interview with The Hill. “And that truck provided his family with the livelihood that he was able to raise 13 kids and send them all to college. So, the table had been set for me long before I was born to have some advantages.”

Foxx said that while growing up, neither he nor family members thought he’d one day helm the DOT secretary.

“But as I have worked in and out of government — and I had very impactful experience in local government in North Carolina — I began to see how important transportation is as a lifeline to so many things,” he said.

The now fully ensconced DOT chief says his time in local government, first as a city council member and later as mayor of Charlotte, also prepared him for battles he has faced in Washington as the Obama administration’s frontman for infrastructure issues.

“The more I got into local government and local issues, the more I realized that we can build the best schools in the world, but if people can’t get to them, we’ll still have challenges,” he said. “We can build the best highway systems in the world, but if people don’t have the means to use them, we will not prosper as a country. These kind of issues became very apparent to me very early in my political career.”

The 44-year-old said he did not, as mayor, have the luxury of playing favorites with modes of transportation.

“When I was mayor of Charlotte, we had rail, we had transit, we had highways, we had an airport. … What becomes important is not just how each individual mode is performing, but how they perform together to address mobility, effective movement of freight and goods and the building of an economy and quality of life,” Foxx said.  

“I feel lucky to have come into this role having been on the frontline of where all of these modes converge, because it gives me a perspective on how important it is that each mode relate to the whole of our economy, of our need for mobility as a country, so I don’t see them as isolated entities,” he continued. “I see them all as playing a role in our mobility as a country.”

Foxx admits it’s been a struggle to convince the rest of Washington to see transportation funding issues from his perspective.

“It’s tough because you have baked-in constituents and baked-in interests,” he said.

He hopes to focus attention on the nation’s long-term transportation needs before he leaves office, if Congress can get past the series of deadline-induced temporary patches that have marked transportation funding debates for the last decade.

“While I think we’re generally aligned in terms of the need for investment and the need for stability in the nation’s efforts in transportation, I think one thing our country is overdue for is a real dispassionate look at what we’re doing,” he said.

“We’ve gotten comfortable with a supply side view of transportation,” Foxx continued. “You put in x amount for highways, x amount for transit, x amount for rail, x for transit and on down the list, but it’s almost without a view toward what’s happening on the demands. I think transportation policy probably needs to make a shift on the demand side in order to meet the needs of our growing country.”

Foxx said Congress has to pass legislation to avert an interruption in the federal aviation funding this week and surface transportation spending at the end of next month before that can happen, however.

“I think we’ve got this immediate issue of the budget, and Congress has plenty of time to still deal with this in a real way and should do so and needs to do so, frankly, so other business can be taken up like a highway bill,” he said. “In the absence of that, I think it’s going to be very hard to get anything done. I really think step one is Congress taking up dealing with this budget.”

While he waits for Congress to get moving on funding bills for highways and aviation, Foxx has been working lately to broker a solution in a squabble between New York and New Jersey on train tunnel problems that have plagued commuters on one of the nation’s busiest commuter railways.

He said the delays in the proposed project to build a new rail tunnel between New York and New Jersey, known as the Gateway Project, “is a poster child for what’s wrong” in American infrastructure.

“It’s a project that everyone agrees needs to happen,” he said. “It’s a project that seeks to repair a 105-year-old asset that’s critical not only to the Northeast region, but frankly to the country’s economy. And yet our default systems allow the project to languish.”

Foxx said he aims to turn the Northeast rail tunnel into a transportation funding success story in a time when infrastructure victories are rare in Washington.

“If this project can become a symbol not of what’s wrong with our country right now but a symbol of what we have to do to get right as a country, then the intermittent skirmishes and challenges along the way will be worth it, because we’ll not only get that project done but we’ll be able to speak through our actions to the rest of the country about what it’s going to take for American infrastructure to be as good as it should be,” he said.