by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
President Obama’s Transportation Secretary nominee Anthony Foxx (D) steered his way through his first confirmation hearing on Wednesday without facing any major objections.
Foxx, the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., faced lawmakers on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee for two hours.
When it was over, senators in both parties predicted Foxx was heading toward the helm of Department of Transportation.
“I adjourn this hearing on the presumption that you will ride the fast rail right to the secretaryship,” the panel’s chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said at the end of the hearing.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) agreed that Foxx was likely headed for a “noncontroversial nomination.”
Foxx was appointed by President Obama to replace outgoing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican who crossed party lines to join Obama’s first Cabinet in 2009.
Some transportation advocates have grumbled that Foxx does not have direct experience in the road and transit industry, though the mayor’s supporters have frequently pointed out that he supported public transportation projects in Charlotte.
Republicans on the Senate panel expressed no such objections on Wednesday, however.
Even a potential showdown between Foxx and conservative firebrand Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) fizzled quickly.
“I enjoyed our visit,” Foxx said to Cruz, to laughter. “I’ve been telling people that and they seem to act surprised; I don’t know why.”
Cruz responded to Foxx after questioning him about the impact of the sequester on the transportation department’s operations: “I look forward to us working together, and I look forward to supporting your nomination.”
For his part, Foxx stuck Wednesday to a tight script that included promises to follow up with lawmakers on local issues if he is confirmed.
He said safety, efficiency and expansion of the U.S. transportation system would be his top priorities as DOT secretary.
“If I am confirmed … ensuring that our transportation system is the safest in the world will be my top priority,” Foxx said.
He said that he would focus on “improving efficiency and performance of our existing transportation system,” before seeking money to build new projects.
Foxx said it was important to “build out infrastructure to meet the next generation’s needs.”
Lawmakers mostly used their audience with Foxx to press for local transportation projects.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked the DOT nominee about investing in rail safety technology, citing last week’s commuter rail crash in Connecticut.
Blumenthal said the crash, on New York’s Metro-North commuter line that runs to Connecticut’s suburban areas, shows “our rail lines are deteriorated, outdated and decrepit in many areas, especially our Northeast corridor.”
Foxx agreed, saying “the tragic collision in Bridgeport is one that all of us in the country feel.”
Foxx told Blumenthal he would be open to visiting the site of the accident if he is confirmed as DOT Secretary, but he said that he does not want to “presuppose” the cause of the Metro-North accident, citing ongoing an National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) asked Foxx about his opinion on tolling, citing efforts in the Transportation secretary nominee’s home state of North Carolina to add tolls to Interstate 95.
Scott said adding tolls on I-95 would be a “disaster” that would result in increased traffic on “secondary roads.”
Foxx responded that tolling “has its place,” but he added: “I don’t think it’s a complete solution” to transportation funding in the U.S.
“We’re not going to toll our way to prosperity in this country,” Foxx said.
The appeals from Republican lawmakers for transportation funding after the budget cutting fights of late in Washington drew Rockefeller’s ire.
Rockefeller told Foxx that he did not want him to respond before launching a lengthy statement criticizing the “hypocrisy” of questions in confirmation hearing about transportation funding, then not approving it.
“I want you to be a good transportation secretary, but you can’t do that without revenue,” Rockefeller said to Foxx.
Rockefeller urged Foxx to use his platform as Transportation secretary if he is confirmed to push for more funding for road and transit projects, like outgoing Secretary LaHood has done.
“Your predecessor was pretty good at going around and saying what he wanted, and getting away with it,” he said.
For his part, Foxx said he wants to be an “advocate” for more transportation funding both within and outside of the Obama administration.
“It’s a two-year bill that achieves many things that I think are important … but clearly we need a longer surface transportation bill,” he said of the current road and transit measure, which is scheduled to expire in September 2014.
Republicans on the committee said they shared Foxx’s desire to adequately fund transportation projects, but not if they cost more than the revenue that is generated for them.
“We cannot continue to borrow from the general fund to fund highways,” the ranking Republican on the panel, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said.
The current transportation bill spent about $15 billion more per year than its primary funding source, the 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax, brings in.
“We’re going to have to figure out how to … pay for it, or we’re going to have to have a lot smaller appetite,” Thune said of negotiations that are about to begin on its replacement.
Despite the soliloquy, the South Dakota senator suggested that he would also support Foxx’s nomination as long as he promised to be responsive to lawmakers if confirmed.
Thune asked for current Transportation Department officials to respond to an outstanding request for information about the recent fight over flight delays that were attributed to the sequester budget cuts.
A Senate Transportation Committee aide told The Hill that the Obama administration would likely reply to the requests soon to enable a quick vote on Foxx.