By: Bart Jansen
Aviation may take a back seat to urban ground transportation under President Obama’s nominee for transportation secretary, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, who was named Monday.
In making his announcement, Obama commended Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for his leadership in building or improving 350,000 miles of road, upgrading 6,000 miles of rail and repairing or replacing 20,000 bridges.
Obama noted that Foxx as mayor broke ground on the Charlotte Streetcar Project, opened a third parallel runway at Charlotte-Douglass International Airport and worked to extend the LYNX light-rail system to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“We need to modernize the infrastructure that powers our economy,” Obama said.
Foxx, for his part, also said there was no such thing as a Democratic or Republican road, bridge, port, airfield or rail system.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who heads the transportation committee that will consider Foxx’s nomination, said he would move “as soon as possible.”
“He can be a driving force in the federal effort to take advantage of transportation opportunities,” Rockefeller said.
Joshua Schank, CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a charitable foundation working to improve transportation, said Foxx’s top priorities are likely to lie on the ground rather than in the air.
“Even though he may have had some experience dealing with an airport, his choice represents an emphasis on metropolitan areas,” Schank said. “I would imagine that aviation would be a secondary consideration for him.”
Obama’s advocacy for high-speed rail, with $40 billion proposed over five years for trains between cities, has become a partisan clash with congressional Republicans who argue the money could be better spent elsewhere or used to reduce the debt.
But Schank said expanding transit such as light-rail projects is popular in conservative states. The question for the administration will be how much to emphasize urban transit or intercity rail.
“That is the choice of the Obama administration, that they think the more pressing issue is going to be in urban areas with metropolitan transportation on the ground,” Schank said.
Airlines expect Foxx to be familiar with their issues because Charlotte, a US Airways hub, has the eighth-largest busiest airport in the country. Obama proposed to raise some airline fees as part of his budget, but airlines seek a national policy to reduce federal taxes and regulations while improving the air-traffic control system.
“As an elected leader of a hub market, Mayor Foxx understands well how important airlines are to jobs and the economy,” said Nicholas Calio, CEO of the trade group Airlines for America.
Republican reaction to the nomination was muted in Congress. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the top Republican on Rockefeller’s committee, said he looked forward to a fair and thorough confirmation process.
“Without question, our nation faces a number of transportation challenges that will require strong leadership and effective communication with Congress to keep our nation moving,” Thune said.
The chairman of the House transportation committee, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., congratulated Foxx on the nomination and thanked LaHood for his service.
“I remain committed to building consensus about how to strengthen our infrastructure, promote economic growth and make the nation more competitive in the global marketplace,” Shuster said.
If confirmed, Foxx will immediately face a budget fight and several contentious rules for consumer-protection and safety.
A week of furloughs at the Federal Aviation Administration, which delayed thousands of flights, prompted Congress to allow the agency to shift around funding amid spending cuts to end the furloughs.
But the spending battle remains for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1 because the Obama administration wants to close tax loopholes while trimming spending, but congressional Republicans oppose new revenues.
The Transportation Department is developing a consumer-protection rule dealing with how airlines market services such as baggage fees and seat assignments.
Consumer groups and travel agents are urging the department to force airlines to provide the prices for those services to the companies that allow comparisons at sites like Travelocity and Orbitz. But airlines are opposed to being forced to provide the information because comparison sites charge billions of dollars collectively each year.
Simon Gros, chairman of the Travel Technology Association of online travel agencies, said Foxx undoubtedly knows the importance of air transportation and must find the balance between higher fares and limited competition.
Two safety rules are also pending at the FAA, in reaction to the last fatal crash of a commercial airliner in February 2009. One rule expected in August proposes to require as many training hours for co-pilots as pilots, with exceptions for military pilots and those graduating from four-year colleges. The other rule, expected in October, will require more simulator training about how to recover from a stall.