by Keith Laing, The Hill Newspaper
New Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is taking the wheel of transportation policy for the Obama administration at a precarious time for road and transit funding.
The transportation funding bill that was passed under Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, is set to expire in September 2014, a scant two years after it was approved by lawmakers.
Revenue from the traditional funding source for road and transit projects, the federal tax on gasoline purchases, is dwindling as people drive less and cars get better gas mileage.
Eno Center for Transportation President Joshua Schank said the funding for transportation – or lack thereof – will dominate most of Foxx’s early tenure at the DOT.
“That will be the number one issue on his mind,” Schank told The Hill. “He’s coming into a situation with no revenue and the prospect [for increased funding] is bleak. Without new revenue, there’s limited influence you can have.”
The last transportation bill, which was passed by lawmakers in 2012, contained approximately $54 billion in spending for road and transit projects. The 18.4 cents per gallon gas tax only brings in about $35 billion per year to the federal coffers.
Lawmakers bridged the gap in the 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century (MAP-21) bill with a patchwork of money taken from other areas of the federal budget. However, lawmakers in both parties have sworn that there will not be a repeat occurrence in 2014, when Foxx will be trying to steer a transportation bill through Congress.
The prospects initially appeared bleak too for LaHood, who also came to the transportation secretary position in tough economic times. The now-former transportation secretary took office at the height of the economic recession in 2009.
But unlike Foxx now, LaHood had the advantage of being able to help shape the Obama administration’s $785 billion stimulus package.
Foxx is now taking office four years later at a time when stimulus has become a dirty word for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Foxx was approved by Congress last week on a unanimous vote. But Schank said the newly-minted secretary “faces a real challenge trying to get anything through Congress.”
However, Schank said Foxx could have some advantages LaHood did not have by virtue of his former position. Until he was confirmed by the Senate, Foxx was the mayor of Charlotte, N.C.
“He’s coming to this with more hands-on experience,” Schank said. “When it comes to stuff the secretary can influence without Congress, he may have the potential to play a higher role than Ray LaHood.”
Foxx has promised to stay the course that was started by LaHood. In his first days in office, he took over the DOT’s Twitter handle (now @SecretaryFoxx) and “Fast Lane” blog.
“As I begin my tenure at DOT, I plan to focus on three key areas, the first of which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows this Department: safety,” Foxx wrote on Tuesday afternoon.
“As it has been for Secretary LaHood, the dedicated DOT workforce, and DOT’s many partners and stakeholders, ensuring that America’s transportation system is the safest in the world will be my top priority,” Foxx continued. “I will also focus on improving the efficiency and performance of our existing transportation system. And finally we must draw on all of our innovation and creativity to improve our future transportation system.”
Schank said it was telling that Foxx has signaled he will focus on improving the reliability of the existing transportation system.
“The biggest pitfall is the presumption that there is revenue when there is not,” Schank said. “I don’t know if Ray LaHood had a say in this matter, but the [Obama administration’s] budgets assumed there was revenue for transportation that wasn’t there.”
Schank said with Foxx now confirmed for the DOT Cabinet post, the Obama administration could have an opportunity to change that perception.
“If the secretary and the administration come out and say ‘here’s our plan for funding transportation’ — if they deal with that, they can make a huge contribution,” Schank said. “If they don’t, they won’t.”
Foxx has said little thus far about how he prefers to pay for transportation projects.
Schank said the new transportation chief might be doing the right thing by starting small.
“The biggest mistake people make coming into these jobs is they pick the big battles first,” Schank said. “There are a lot of little battles [Foxx] could win.”
For his part, Foxx promised last week to follow the “practical, bipartisan approach that I believe made Secretary Ray LaHood so effective at DOT.
“I believe in safe, effective transportation, and whether it is a bus, road, train, plane, or ship, our transportation system –at its best– connects people to a better quality of life,” Foxx wrote.