Obama Administration Moved the Ball Forward on Transportation: Foxx

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By Stephanie Beasley

Most Cabinet members can count themselves lucky if they accomplish one task that people remember during an administration. But outgoing Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said he can list at least six things he accomplished during his tenure that moved the ball forward on transportation policy.

Foxx was mayor of Charlotte, N.C., before joining the Obama administration in 2013.

“I’m in this to do big stuff,” Foxx told Bloomberg BNA in an exclusive interview ( click here for the full transcript). “And, typically, what I’ve done in public service is I’ve tried to get below the top lines and to the fundamental changes that are going to make us better. And I think this has been the most rapid period of change in transportation in quite some time, perhaps even in the history of the department.”

Foxx said he would include the passage of a five-year surface transportation reauthorization law—the first long-term highway and transit funding law in more than a decade—as well as the establishment of the Build America finance bureau among the major tasks that the Department of Transportation helped complete in the past four years. The Obama administration had done more to streamline the permitting and review process for projects than any other that he could recall, he said.

Legacy on Technology

The agency also advanced comprehensive policies on the development of new transportation technologies, such as drones and driverless cars, he said.

“The idea of the driverless car is capturing the imagination of people more so than has been the case for transportation and technology in my lifetime,” Foxx said. “And whether it’s that, or commercial space or drones, I think people are starting to think about transportation differently and probably thinking that we’ll have a good shot at getting better outcomes in the future.”

Foxx said he felt the department had taken a very proactive approach to its oversight of automated technologies. A draft guidance the DOT issued in September outlining voluntary safety standards for automakers developing autonomous vehicles was the most comprehensive step any country had taken on the issue so far and would “stand the test of time,” he said. Under Foxx, the DOT also issued a draft rule for vehicle-to-vehicle communication and a final rule for the commercial operation of drones weighing 55 pounds or less.

But not all of the policies unveiled during Foxx’s tenure have been hits. For example, the drone industry has complained about what it considers to be regressive restrictions in the small-drone rule that ban flights at night or beyond the operator’s line of vision. And automakers have called for more clarity about how they can comply with the 15-point safety assessment in the autonomous-vehicle guidance.

Criticism of MPO Rule

One senator took aim at a rule released last month that would require some metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) to unite and create consolidated regional transportation plans.

During a Jan. 11 confirmation hearing for Elaine Chao, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the DOT, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said she would like to see the Trump administration significantly change or reverse the MPO rule. She said it could negatively impact major cities, like Chicago, that border other states. Those cities would be forced to work with transportation officials in the neighboring state, which could disrupt projects, according to Duckworth.

“I appreciate that the intent of the initiative may have been to encourage better results through regional cooperation,” she said. “But, in fact, the impact of the new mandate will have unintended consequences for some localities and will be especially disastrous for Illinois and, in particular, the Chicagoland greater metropolitan area.”

Chao, herself a former Cabinet member under President George W. Bush, said that, if confirmed, she would look into the issue.

Foxx Pushes Back

Foxx fired back against Duckworth’s critique, citing a DOT report called “Beyond Traffic,” which looks at current and future transportation conditions in the nation.

“On that rule, in particular, what I can say is that the work we did in “Beyond Traffic” pointed out a very glaring issue to us that we believe the country needs to take seriously, which is that our transportation system supports economies that transcend political boundaries” he said. “And yet, the decision-making has almost always been confined to political boundaries. [I]n addition to that, we just had an election after which folks were running around saying we’ve got this urban/rural divide. And it’s actually my view that Washington isn’t going to solve that problem from Washington.”

The DOT had, in fact, “relaxed” provisions in the MPO rule based on public feedback on an earlier draft, Foxx said. Those changes included pushing the effective date back to 2020 and allowing MPOs to petition for an exemption if they felt like they were already meeting the goals.

Coming up with plans that address the needs of urban, rural and suburban communities within a metropolitan area is consistent with the DOT’s founding mission and is something that transportation agencies should have been doing a long time ago, Foxx said.

Next Moves

Foxx has spent a great deal of his time at the DOT advocating for transportation agencies at the state and local levels to do more to create equality among their communities by including all populations in the transportation-planning process. For instance, in 2015, the DOT launched the LadderSTEP technical assistance program to encourage cities to develop transportation plans that would help revitalize disenfranchised neighborhoods by connecting them to affordable transportation options and jobs.

Foxx said that he wants to continue learning about perceived urban, rural and suburban divides after he leaves his post and returns to North Carolina. He told Bloomberg BNA he is also likely to do some writing and give “a speech or two.” He didn’t close the door on a future political office, but said, generally, his post-DOT career was uncertain.

“I don’t really know where I’m going to hang my hat,” Foxx said. “I’ve still got some things to do between now and the end of this week, believe it or not. So I’ll relax at 12:01 on January 20.”

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

For More Information

The full transcript of Bloomberg BNA's interview with Foxx is online at: http://src.bna.com/ltM

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