Industry gives Transportation chief an incomplete grade

Anne Wernikoff

Infrastructure advocates in Washington are giving Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx an incomplete grade as he reaches the end of a tumultuous first year in office that began with a plane crash in San Francisco and ended with widespread auto recalls.

Foxx was sworn in to become President Obama's second Transportation chief one year ago Wednesday.

Railway Supply Institute President Thomas Simpson said in an interview with The Hill that Foxx has had "a lot of safety issues thrown at him right out of the box" in his first year in office.

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"He was put in a tough position, dealing with airplanes, automobiles," Simpson said, adding that it was still too early to compare Foxx's performance to other Transportation secretaries. 

"I think he'll do well," Simpson said. "He's got a good staff over there. We don't always agree, but I think the department does a good job."

Almost immediately after Foxx took over the helm of the Transportation Department, he was forced to deal with the fallout of an Asiana Airlines plane crash landing at San Francisco International Airport over the 2013 Fourth of July weekend.

Safety issues continued to dominate Foxx's first year in office as a series of passenger and freight rail accidents occurred in the fall, the latter involving the transportation of flammable crude oil shipments.

The second half of Foxx's first year in office has been dominated by General Motors's recall of more than 29 million cars, including many that had safety issues going back as far as 2005.

The Transportation Department said Wednesday that Foxx has "made improving safety, and particularly the safe transportation of crude oil, a priority in his first year, in addition to increasing transportation investment, improving efficiency, and using innovation to stretch transportation dollars further.

"In the past year, DOT has taken more than two dozen unprecedented actions to enforce regulations, reduce risks, and enhance the safety of crude-oil transportation including most recently requiring railroads transporting crude to inform states that the product is moving through their communities and urging the use of stronger tank cars when moving crude," the agency wrote in a blog post on its website.

"And the secretary's safety efforts have extended into every other mode of transportation, including pilot training, pedestrian protection, and motorcoach travel," the blog post continued.

Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua Schank told The Hill on Wednesday that Foxx has to be careful not to get caught up in dealing with accidents.

"Transportation tends to get noticed when there's a catastrophe and he's had his share," Schank said. "But you can't keep jumping from catastrophe to catastrophe, even though they can and will keep happening. You have to be proactive."

Schank said Foxx deserves credit for helping President Obama develop a transportation funding bill, which the administration did not release under his precedessor, Ray LaHood. Foxx was traveling to Kentucky on Wednesday to hold a press conference at the state's capitol to highlight the looming transportation funding shortfall.

Schank said he hopes Foxx can do more to articulate a bold transportation vision after the funding debate in Congress is over.

"He hasn't yet put his stamp on what his [signature] issue will be," Schank said. "When people think about Ray LaHood, they know he was all about distracted driving ... high-speed rail and the stimulus. I don't know what I think Anthony Foxx wants to do yet. There are opportunities outside of pushing for a transportation bill, I think he should look for those."

The DOT said Wednesday that Foxx has laid out a clear vision for transportation from his first day on the job, however.

"In his first official blog post one year ago today, newly sworn-in Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx wrote that, 'Whether it is a bus, road, train, plane, or ship, our transportation system — at its best — connects people to a better quality of life,' " the agency said in its blog post.

"A year later, that initial statement remains the clearest description of what Secretary Foxx and this Department have worked so hard to do over the past 12 months — connect Americans to a better quality of life," the blog post continued.  "And we're happy to report that, with the Secretary's leadership, we've made significant headway toward that goal."

Schank said he hopes Foxx continues to speak out about the importance of transportation after Congress moves on from the infrastructure funding standoff.

"I hope that once this crisis is over, he articulates a bold vision for transportation," Schank said. "I think he has all the skills to pull that off."