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In Final Push, U.S. Transportation Secretary Calls on Leaders to Rethink Their Mission

Outgoing Anthony Foxx says the industry needs to work more cooperatively to plan for the future.

(FlickrCC/Metro Transit)
In his four years as U.S. transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx has pressed public officials and industry leaders to rethink many of their long-held assumptions about transportation. Lately, he’s been trying to make sure they continue to mull over his ideas even after he’s out of office.

In short, Foxx wants to make sure that the transportation industry thinks beyond just moving people and things quickly, especially if doing so leads to consequences like polluted skies and additional hardships for poor people and minority communities. Foxx wants to use advances in technology and the looming need to replace much of the country’s aging infrastructure to solve those problems rather than add to them.

So, in his final weeks in office, Foxx issued a 239-page blueprint for how to plan transportation networks that can handle increased demand and disruptive technology over the next three decades. He convened a new task force to prepare for automated vehicles and drones. And his department unveiled a toolkit to help local residents fight highway projects that they think will harm them.

“My goal was to set this department on a course for the next 50 years that more fully recognizes the role transportation decisions play in economic opportunity for underserved communities, appreciates the role that technology can play in making our transportation future much safer, and embraces innovation even when it disrupts traditional ways of thinking,” he wrote in his exit memo.

Under Foxx, a former Charlotte mayor, the Department of Transportation (DOT) has elevated the role of cities by enlisting them in efforts to reduce cyclist and pedestrian fatalities and encouraging them to compete in a Smart City competition.

Foxx’s likely successor, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, told a U.S. Senate panel that her top priorities include maintaining “a culture of good stewardship” at the agency, speeding up regulatory processes to move along construction projects more quickly, and striving for equity between urban and rural projects.

As Chao participated in her confirmation hearings last week, Foxx simultaneously spoke just a few miles away at the Brookings Institution to make the case for continuing his priorities in the years ahead. “Part of our challenge is that most of our policies and funding have grown up around getting the system built. They haven’t necessarily grown up around trying to integrate the system,” Foxx said. “We’re kind of stuck in Build! Build! Build! mode as if it’s 1956, instead of being in a mode of [trying] to optimize the freeways, the local streets, the sidewalks and the bike lanes.”

One reason that the transportation networks don’t work well together is that, politically and practically, people don’t see the different components as part of a larger network. “The transportation community is kind of splintered. There’s a road lobby. There’s a transit lobby. There’s a rail lobby. But they almost always are arguing their own case, and not the case for the system,” he said.

“The problem with that,” Foxx added, “is that when they go to the Hill and they try to get something done, it’s not going to be integrated. If our road systems are just being judged on roads, and not being judged on overall mobility and access, then we probably won’t get mobility and access. If we start measuring the things that we want and we’re more flexible in how we get there, then we have a chance to get the 21st century transportation system everybody wants.”

On transportation and race

Foxx, who is African-American, has made no secret that growing up in his grandparents’ house in Charlotte shaped his views on how transportation infrastructure can isolate communities rather than connect them. The secretary has said the neighborhood he grew up in had two interstate highways running through it, which essentially cut off the area from the surrounding community.

“We have stacked into our system certain prejudices about certain geographic areas. You can go to many cities and see where the freeways line up and see the evidence of what people thought about those areas,” he said at Brookings. “In most cases, it was not that much.”

But even from just a transportation perspective, he said there is “no traffic advantage” for having many of those highways running through cities. “Restoring the old street grid might be as efficient or more efficient than having that freeway running through it. And it has the added value of connecting communities.”

While few of those highways have been scrapped under Foxx’s watch, the department has increased its scrutiny of states and other recipients of federal funds under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating based on race.

For instance, using its Title VI authority, the U.S. DOT announced an agreement with Alabama authorities in December that requires Alabama officials to reopen driver’s license facilities in the state's Black Belt. Alabama officials had announced that the state would close 31 facilities in 2015. The agreement came after a yearlong investigation concluded that the closures would disproportionately affect black residents. The closures had sparked a national uproar, because they came at a time that the state was also rolling out a voter ID law that required voters to have driver’s licenses or other government ID to cast a ballot.

Foxx, who once was a trial attorney for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said the transportation agency recently updated its rules on Title VI for the first time in 40 years.

On community input

It may seem odd that the U.S. DOT, whose success is often measured by completed projects, would help local residents slow down or even halt big transportation projects. But that’s essentially what the agency did by producing a packet that helps ordinary citizens follow along and get involved during the byzantine approval processes for major projects.

Foxx said transportation planners need to do a better job of reaching out to communities to avoid making the same mistakes they made in the past, such as building interstates that divide or decimate neighborhoods. That means using easier-to-understand language and getting feedback from residents where they are.

The secretary said his agency is working on changing its public input requirements so that, instead of holding a public hearing at a government building downtown, transportation planners could go into a community, say at a coffee shop, and ask residents for feedback.

The outward-facing approach could help transportation officials get better input from communities that have often been discriminated against in the past. “Many communities don’t feel empowered to engage,” he said. “The community where I’m from, a largely African-American community from the northwest side of the city of Charlotte, every time the transportation department came to them, it was always something bad. So when [transportation planners] come today, folks are thinking, ‘What are you going to do to me now?’”

On elevating the role of cities

When it comes to U.S. transportation policy, especially for roads and highways, the federal government principally interacts with state transportation departments. But, as city centers fill back in and new residents demand walkable neighborhoods and plentiful transportation options, the concerns of cities have taken on new prominence.

Under Foxx, the U.S. Department of Transportation has responded to some of those concerns. The federal government has worked directly with city transportation departments on issues like improving safety for cyclists and pedestrians, linking disadvantaged communities to job-rich neighborhoods, and, most famously, launching a Smart City competition to encourage cities to think of socially beneficial ways to use new transportation technology.

“We have worked hard to get local government more involved in what we do. Part of that is because, just from a macroeconomic standpoint, our cities are becoming more of the organizers of our economy,” Foxx explained.

But under Foxx, the federal government has also encouraged cities to work with other communities in their regions to better plan together. That was the rationale for a proposed regulation that the agency unveiled last summer, which would require all major metropolitan areas to have just one metropolitan planning organization (MPO). The rule, which hasn’t officially been put into place yet, is controversial, as rival areas, sometimes in different states, don’t want to consolidate.

“We are not, in my opinion, going to solve this so-called urban-rural divide in Washington, D.C.,” Foxx said. “We have to deal with that in a region-by-region way. Pushing neighbors together to problem-solve together is actually not a bad thing. It’s probably not what we’re used to, but we need to push our regions to plan more collaboratively -- not just coordinate, but to plan together.”

Dan is Governing’s transportation and infrastructure reporter.
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