President Obama nominated Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx as his next transportation secretary. While Foxx had been rumored as a likely candidate for the job for weeks, his emergence as a front-runner came as something of a surprise.
Until his name was floated, the presumption was that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa or Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, would get the nod.
Instead Foxx got the pick, with backers citing his experience working on his city's light rail, streetcar and airport runway projects as the clincher. "I know well the opportunities and challenges of maintaining and improving infrastructure and providing good transportation choices," Foxx said at an event with President Obama and current Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at the White House on Monday.
So what, exactly, does his appointment mean? Some transportation advocates argue it could be a signal of a renewed commitment to the local role in transportation planning and a continued emphasis on transit and livability initiatives. Indeed, being someone whose transportation record mainly points to transit makes him atypical of previous Department of Transportation (DOT) secretary nominees.
"Ninety percent of the innovative things going on in this country are at the city level," said Marcia Hale, president of Building America's Future Education Fund, which advocates for transportation investment.
Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood echoed those remarks at Monday's event. "I know that every mayor in America is thrilled today because one of their own will become the Secretary of Transportation," he said. "And what a message to send around the country. What you say to every city is mayors count. Cities count."
Foxx is not someone who has a national reputation in the transportation community the way Villaraigosa, former Pennsylvania Ed Rendell and several others whose names have been bandied about do. But by avoiding an outsized personality with a lengthy transportation record, the president has also ensured a pick who could be more likely to remain in-line. "He's going to be loyal to the president and support the president's agenda," says Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation. Indeed, Rendell himself has said he wouldn't be a good pick because he's been too critical of the administration's lack of transportation investment. Some lawmakers had advocated for the nomination of former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, a onetime chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, but he too has butted heads with the administration.
The last mayor appointed to the job was Denver Mayor Federico Pena who was named transportation secretary by President Clinton in 1993.
Many of the issues that will face Foxx at the onset of his tenure at DOT are outside his area of expertise. Case in point: The latest transportation crisis -- last week's flight delays due to traffic controller furloughs caused by sequestration -- dealt with two issues a mayor typically doesn't deal with, federal budgeting and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Meanwhile, the next big piece of transportation and infrastructure legislation Congress is addressing -- the Water Resources Development Act -- largely deals with ports and inland waterways, two issues Foxx wouldn't have much experience with in landlocked Charlotte.
Mary Peters, who served as transportation secretary under President George W. Bush, said Foxx will rely heavily on administrators from the FAA and Federal Highway Administration, as well as Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari, to get up to speed in the areas where he's not an expert.
Leslie Wollack, infrastructure program director at the National League of Cities added that mayors tend to be adept at bringing a wide swath of stakeholders together. That skill set, she said, should serve Foxx well as he leads a transportation system that has many different components.
Peters agreed that Foxx's background as a mayor could be a big asset in the office. "He knows what it feels like to be on the receiving end of things," she said. By having experience as a transportation stakeholder and grantee, Foxx could have a useful perspective when it comes to knowing what Washington can do to make state and local governments work more efficently with federal transportation resources.
And, she says, he could be able to tap into a network of other big city mayors for ideas. "It's good that he brings that."