The Senate today confirmed Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx as the next transportation secretary, making him the first sitting mayor in decades to get the job.
Foxx, whose confirmation wasn't controversial and passed on a 100-0 vote, is the first sitting mayor since Portland's Neil Goldshmidt -- tapped by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 -- to take the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
It's also very rare for a sitting mayor to get any cabinet post. Previous mayors who joined the cabinet include former Transportation Secretary Federico Peña (a Denver mayor) Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros (a San Antonio mayor) and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk (a Dallas mayor). But none of them were in the mayor's seat when they were actually nominated.
Foxx, who's led the Queen City since 2009, has had experience dealing with transportation issues touching several modes. Charlotte is building a new street car line, extending its light rail system, recently expanded its airport, and coordinated with the state on big highway improvements. As a city council member, he chaired the council's transportation committee.
Transportation experts say Foxx's experience leading a major city could be a unique asset in Washington. The only other former mayor in Obama's cabinet is Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who was elected mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa in 1987.
"As the elected head of a major city, Mayor Foxx is more likely than most to understand the issues facing localities and states, which are struggling to meet the needs of a changing population in the wake of a long recession," said James Corless, executive director of Transportation For America, in an e-mail.
Foxx also isn't a stranger to Washington. He's previously worked as counsel to the House Judiciary Committee and as a trial attorney for Justice Department's civil rights division.
Gene Conti, who served as North Carolina's transportation secretary from 2009 until earlier this year, says Foxx has serious policy chops when it comes to transportation. He recalled inviting Foxx to welcome transportation secretaries from across the country at a rail conference in Charlotte several years. Instead of just making a few brief remarks touting the city -- which would be the norm for some mayors -- "Anthony came in and gave a 20 minute dissertation on why passenger rail was important to the southeast and the nation, and why passenger rail and freight rail need to work together."
"He gave a policy speech... and everyone turned to me and said, is that really the mayor?" Conti recalls.
Foxx is poised to lead the transportation department at a critical time for the country, as lawmakers seek to reconcile the need for infrastructure investments with a culture of austerity that's taken over Washington.
The Highway Trust Fund, which gets its money from taxes on gasoline and motor fuels, is the source of most federal spending on highways, bridges, roads and transit. Yet federal estimates show it won't be able to meet its obligations by 2015.
The fund has struggled for years to remain in the black, relying on budgetary gimmicks and general fund transfers to stay afloat, as federal lawmakers have generally opposed raising the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax since it was last hiked 20 years ago.
The current highway and transit bill, known as MAP-21, expires next year, and many in the transportation community say they'll be looking to Foxx to play a leading role in helping the House and Senate reach an agreement on legislation that will provide more financial stability to those programs.
The Obama administration had been criticized for never publicly releasing its own transportation bill, even though historically, the White House has done so. John Horsley, a former associate deputy secretary at the U.S. Department of Transportation, says that's one way Foxx could distinguish himself.
Martin Whitmer, who served as deputy chief of staff at US DOT under Secretary Norman Mineta, says that developing strong relationships with some of the key members of Congress who deal with transportation issues would serve Foxx well.
"Under his watch, he's not going to allow the Highway Trust Fund to go broke," Whitmer says. "What he's going to have to do on Day One is get out of the office and go straight to the Hill ... and utilize the good relationships he developed through the confirmation process."
In fact, at the mayor's Senate confirmation hearing last month, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.), chair of the Senate Commerce, Science, & Transportation Committee said he expected Foxx to do just that."I want you to be a good secretary of transportation," Rockefeller said. "You can't do that without new revenue."
"Goad us," Rockefeller continued. "Let us have it. Express your frustrations. Say 'I've squeezed this, I've squeezed that."
Indeed, Conti says Foxx had a reputation as a consensus-builder and not an ideologue, which could bode well for him trying to navigate hyper-partisan Washington. Historically, the state DOT in North Carolina and the mayor's office in Charlotte had had a contentious relationship -- a dynamic that's common between city and state offices -- but Conti says that changed under Foxx.
He also credited Foxx with bringing transparency and openness to Charlotte's redevelopment of Independence Boulevard, a project that was considered controversial with stakeholders holding differing visions. "It was a contentious situation when he took office," Conti says. "There were a lot of angry voices ... that couldn't be reconciled until Anthony said 'we really need to take a new look at this.'"
In a recent column offering suggestions for Foxx, the Eno Center of Transportation, warned that things won't be easy for Foxx and said funding will be a thorny issue for him. "[I]t may not be realistic to expect him to conquer the single biggest issue that has dogged the last three prior transportation secretaries, along with multiple Congresses and administrations," the center wrote. Indeed, it's not even clear whether a new surface bill would necessarily pass under his leadership; the previous bill had been expired for more than two years before MAP-21 was finally enacted. Instead, Eno suggests Foxx pick more winnable battles.
In addition to the MAP-21 successor, Foxx will preside over DOT a time when the the department is tasked with overseeing implementation of NextGen, the Federal Aviation Administration's high-tech guidance system that would modernize the country's system of managing flights.
He'll also lead the department while many of the passenger rail projects that were planned during Obama's first term in office shift towards the actual construction phase. That includes the hugely controversial California high-speed rail project, which the feds cleared for construction last month.
Additionally, transportation secretaries generally pick a non-controversial safety issue to hang their hat on. Outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood fought distracted driving. Mineta encouraged seat belts. Foxx will almost certainly pick one of his own.
The position could require an adjustment, since it often requires deference to the White House. Famously, LaHood was rebuked by then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs after he suggested it might be worth exploring the idea of a vehicle miles-traveled fee. The incident provided further evidence that even if a transportation secretary has a good policy idea, it still needs the backing of the president in order to have wheels.
"I think that's the market of a cabinet member," Whitmer says. "There's certain things he's not going to have any control of. There's some things he could put his stamp on."