By Steve Harrison and Tim Funk
If Anthony Foxx becomes the next Secretary of Transportation, he will oversee a vast bureaucracy that manages the nation’s highway programs, aviation, railroads and transit.
That’s raised hopes that the Charlotte mayor could steer federal money to North Carolina.
“Everybody says North Carolina is a donor state. Maybe we would be able to get back a larger share in road taxes,” said N.C. Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, the GOP legislator who chairs the state Senate Finance Committee. “We’ve all tried as a delegation to get our fair share of money that we send to Washington. Maybe this is a chance for that to happen.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, the Republican representative of the 9th Congressional District, has projects in mind that he’d like the U.S. DOT to help with.
“We have major road issues here in Charlotte and how the federal money funds those options and priorities is important,” Pittenger said. “(Interstates) 77 and 85 particularly need to be widened. Our town is just a bottleneck.”
Former N.C. Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti, who served as an assistant DOT secretary during the Clinton administration, predicted “North Carolina will get a sympathetic ear” with Foxx at DOT.
“Obviously he can’t just direct money willy-nilly to North Carolina,” Conti said, “but I will tell you that Illinois fared very well under Secretary LaHood,” the current DOT secretary and a former congressman from Peoria, Ill.
The city of Charlotte is currently lobbying the federal government for money for a new control tower for Charlotte Douglas International Airport, and is also hoping the Federal Transit Administration could continue to fund a streetcar line. The city is also hoping for federal funding for a commuter rail line to Lake Norman.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which would be under Foxx’s domain, could also weigh in on the possible transfer of Charlotte Douglas from city control to an independent authority. Foxx, as mayor of Charlotte, has opposed the move, which has been spearheaded by the state General Assembly.
Long to-do list
David Goldberg of Transportation for America, a Washington-based group that lobbies for users of roads, bridges and public transit, said state officials will probably find it easier to get Foxx on the phone than past secretaries of transportation.
But he’s skeptical that Foxx would be able to throw a lot of extra federal funds North Carolina’s way or help his home state at the expense of others.
“There is not a whole lot of discretionary money anymore in the DOT budget,” Goldberg said. “It wouldn’t be real easy for (Foxx) to put his thumb on the scale for North Carolina, even if he wanted to. And he’ll know that he has to be the Transportation secretary for the whole country.”
Joshua Schank, president of the nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation, said the U.S. needs more revenue for transportation projects, due in part to gas tax revenues declining as Americans drive less and use more fuel-efficient vehicles.
He said the new transportation secretary will need to be close enough to President Obama to lobby him to make big decisions.
“You need a strong leader to push the president to spend political capital to raise revenue,” Schank said.
Obama often invited Foxx to the White House for social and political events in 2009 and 2010, and Foxx helped stage what was widely viewed as a successful Democratic National Convention last year in Charlotte.
Mayors a good fit
Cabinet posts are political appointments, so experience often takes a back seat to connections and loyalty to the president and his agenda.
The last DOT secretary with N.C, ties – Elizabeth Dole, who served under President Ronald Reagan – had little transportation experience. But she helped make air bags and mandatory seat belt use the norm in American life.
If his appointment is approved, Foxx would be relatively inexperienced compared with recent secretaries who have served under presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton.
James Burnley served as transportation secretary under President Reagan from 1987 to 1989. Before being nominated to the top job, he had worked as Deputy Transportation Secretary for four years.
“It helped enormously,” Burnley said of his four years working at the department before being nominated as secretary. “It would be true in any cabinet department. If you have lasted that long, you have figured a lot out.”
But Burnley said “there is no template for the job.”
“Having people from diverse backgrounds is very healthy,” Burnley said. “People who have been mayors have experience by definition.”
Foxx’s resume would be similar to two prior secretaries, both of them also Democrats. Federico Peña. who was the first transportation secretary under President Bill Clinton, had been mayor of Denver. Neil Goldschmidt was mayor of Portland, Ore., when Jimmy Carter tapped him for transportation secretary in 1979.
Pena was a so-called “strong mayor” in Denver and responsible for running the city day to day. In Portland, the mayor and four council members double as both legislators and administrators.
In Charlotte, the mayor and the City Council hire a city manager who is tasked with running the city, balancing the budget and hiring staff.
Still, many transportation observers say now is a good time for another mayor, like Foxx, to run DOT.
“Somebody who has a strong understanding of what cities need – especially cities in metro areas – in this day and time is a good choice for DOT at the moment,” said Goldberg of Transportation for America.
The “long list of To-Dos” for Foxx, Goldberg said, could include replacing some “high-volume bridges” – 1 of 10 are structurally deficient; helping cities that have had to cut budgets during the recession meet growing demands for public transit; and make suburban streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Part of the job is ceremonial, as the transportation secretary cuts ribbons for new transportation projects nationwide. But the secretary also has a key role in protecting the public.
As an example of the difficult decisions a transportation secretary must make, Burnley cited LaHood’s decision earlier this year to ground the Boeing 787 Dreamliner due to problems with its lithium-ion batteries that were prone to fire.
After the problems with the Dreamliner first surfaced, LaHood declared it was safe and said he had no reservations about flying on the aircraft.
Burnley added the U.S. DOT is currently deciding how to best implement “positive train control,” a safety system for passenger and rail trains to keep them from colliding. The railroad industry has said it can’t meet the government’s schedule for the project, and Congress and the DOT are trying to find a compromise.