DOT Secretary Foxx's Legacy Tied to Mayoral Roots

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By Stephanie Beasley

April 1 — As he heads into his final months as head of the Department of Transportation, Anthony Foxx is laying out a vision that would give local governments more say in infrastructure project designs and push them toward drafting plans that would help revitalize low-income communities.

Since joining DOT in 2013, former Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Foxx has advocated for cities and local communities to be included in infrastructure planning decisions that have traditionally been handled at the state level.

Congress passed a multiyear highway and transit program reauthorization last year . Now it is up to federal, state and local decision makers to start directing funding to projects that would undo decades-old transportation designs that have disconnected low-income communities from resources and jobs, Foxx said.

“We have a lot of bridges, a lot of roads, a lot of infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt or replaced,” Foxx said at the Center for American Progress on March 30. “And so this is the perfect time to begin thinking about how we do it better than we did it the last time.”

Approximately 90 percent of federal transportation funding goes to states and 98 percent of surface transportation decisions are made at the state level, according to the Department of Transportation.

Empowering MPOs

According to Foxx, part of that process includes better utilizing metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) that have been “handcuffed” by policy that prioritizes the state agencies over local governments. Approximately 90 percent of federal transportation funding goes to states and 98 percent of surface transportation decisions are made at the state level, according to the Department of Transportation.

That model has excluded local communities, particularly low-income rural and urban communities, from infrastructure decisions for many years, Foxx said.

Thomas MacDonald, who was commissioner of the Bureau of Public Roads from 1939 until 1953, encouraged displacing people to make room for freeways, which he believed would become a public asset. Many of the communities targeted were the most disenfranchised and the least likely to resist being moved, according to Foxx.

“We found that a majority of the people displaced were, in fact, people of color,” he said. “And if you add urban renewal programs on top of that, like what is happening to Charlotte, roughly two-thirds of the families displaced were low-income and many of those were African-American.”

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Small Urban and Rural Transit Service Provides Access

 

Foxx said he realized when he became a city council member in Charlotte how disconnected many communities, including his childhood neighborhood, were from grocery stores, medical facilities and job opportunities. Public transportation options are often limited in low-income urban and rural communities and only 49 percent of low-income neighborhoods have sidewalks, compared to 90 percent of high-income communities, according to the Department of Transportation.

Foxx said state and local governments can begin to address the issue by green-lighting projects, like the Long Street bridge in Columbus, Ohio that was erected in 2014 and reconnected the predominantly black King-Lincoln neighborhood to downtown Columbus.

Federal Encouragement

The push comes as the Transportation Department begins funneling money from a multibillion-dollar surface transportation law down to states.

The five-year, $305 billion FAST Act (Pub. L. No. 114-94) that cleared Congress late last year includes provisions meant to encourage the redevelopment of communities and the expansion of employment opportunities. For example, the law gives local governments the option to use a design guide for their street network that differs from their state's adopted design guide. Transit development projects also qualify for Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TFIA) and Railroad Rehabilitation & Improvement Financing (RRIF) programs.

Additionally, the FAST Act provides $2.2 billion in formula grants and $1.5 billion in discretionary grants for bus and bus facilities. The Federal Transit Administration announced March 29 that it was seeking applicants for as much as $266 million in grant funding available for transit and related infrastructure this year .

‘Amazing' New Direction

But the surface transportation law does not make the type of policy changes Foxx is pushing for now, said Robert Puentes, director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

“I think that the narrative that he's articulating around this is amazing,” he told Bloomberg BNA. “It's so unlike what a transportation secretary would be focusing on.”

Though it's unlikely that Congress will take any action this year based on DOT's transportation opportunities campaign, Foxx is certainly making a statement by creating a “big, bold” vision, Puentes said.

Puentes added that it is remarkable how the Obama administration is linking transportation to affordable housing. Foxx and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro discussed how affordable housing and transportation could connect low-income communities to employment, education and other services during a Brookings Institution event in February.

Puentes noted that both Foxx and Castro were former mayors—Castro was mayor of San Antonio, Texas—and have brought their local-level experiences to the housing and transportation agencies.

The Obama administration also has an agency-wide “Ladders of Opportunity” program intended to help people reach the middle class. As part of that effort, DOT added “opportunity” as a criteria to be considered for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants.

“It is certain that directing so many federal resources to individual state transportation agencies has been a root cause of many missteps. It is also certain that empowering mayors and other local elected leaders to have more say and control over how future resources are invested would yield better outcomes for all of our citizens, neighborhoods and cities.”Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake
Work Outside Congress

While congressional action is not expected, Foxx's messaging is having an impact at the state and local level. So far, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), as well as Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, have signed on to Foxx's nonbinding plan to “connect people to opportunity.”

“It is certain that directing so many federal resources to individual state transportation agencies has been a root cause of many missteps,” she said in a March 29 statement. “It is also certain that empowering mayors and other local elected leaders to have more say and control over how future resources are invested would yield better outcomes for all of our citizens, neighborhoods and cities.”

The DOT also is pursuing other ways to help local governments begin thinking about how they can develop more connected transportation systems.

The Transportation Department launched a “smart city challenge” in December that would award as much as $50 million to the mid-size city with the best proposal for integrating infrastructure and data technology, like vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, into its transportation system.

“(O)ne of the major thrusts of the smart city challenge is asking communities to think about how innovation plays out in their communities in terms of the vision they have set for themselves,” Foxx said during a press call March 30. “I think the smart city challenge is giving us an opportunity to have the entire economic range of a community thought about at the beginning.”

More Options

Foxx added that instituting ride- and bike-sharing services and using analytics to track and optimize bus and public transit use could be especially useful tools in cities and rural communities. Once all of this “cool stuff” is deployed it might actually help to solve some of the greatest transportation challenges facing the country, he said.

Although just one city will win the smart city challenge, Foxx said that all 78 applications received by DOT will be scanned so that the department can potentially match the cities with available discretionary or formula grant programs.

“We want to leave each of the cities with some idea of how they can implement the visions they've laid out,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

More information about DOT's “bridging the divide” campaign is available in this video online: http://src.bna.com/dLN.