When my daughter was small, she had a “transportation puzzle,” a simple wooden puzzle with pieces representing a variety of cars, trucks, planes, trains and boats.
For our new secretary of transportation, overseeing all those modes of transportation isn’t going to be as easy as fitting wooden pieces into pre-determined spaces.
Anthony Foxx, sworn in early last month, leads an agency with more than 55,000 employees and a $70 billion budget that oversees air, maritime and surface transportation.
The new head of the DOT is already looking to one of the big challenges ofhis job: Getting our dysfunctional Congress to pass a real highway bill by its due date of Sept. 30, 2014. The last highway bill, instead of the usual five-year program, essentially kicked the can down the road with a two-year stopgap measure.
The good news is our new transportation secretary seems to have a real focus on infrastructure.
When he was sworn in early last month, Foxx said he would “work to improve the efficiency and performance of our current transportation system while building the infrastructure we need for future generations.”
As the mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Foxx made transportation investments the centerpiece of job creation and economic recovery efforts.
These investments included extending the light rail system, expanding the airport and starting a streetcar project. Before he was elected mayor, Foxx served two terms on the City Council chairing the Transportation Committee.
Those accomplishments don’t appear to include any major highway projects, but groups who care very much about highways were optimistic about Foxx in statements issued after his confirmation.
American Trucking Associations President and CEO Bill Graves: “The challenges of being mayor of a large city like Charlotte are not all that different from those of being a governor, so I’m confident he will be up to the test of providing this country with the first-rate, world-class transportation system our industry and our economy demand.”
Building America’s Future co-chair, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell: “I am confident that as secretary, he will prioritize and reinvest in our infrastructure so that the U.S. remains competitive in the global economy. My hope for Mayor Foxx is that he will help move Washington out of gridlock so that our nation can take action on long-term transportation and infrastructure plans. His ability to work across the aisle will help our nation move forward.”
And that, of course, is key.
It’s not that Foxx’s predecessor, Ray LaHood, didn’t care about infrastructure. In a radio interview, LaHood lamented the disappointing amount of infrastructure spending approved by Congress during his tenure. “America is one big pothole right now.”
LaHood, a Republican, placed most of the blame on his party, and there’s little doubt that bitter partisanship on Capitol Hill and division within the GOP were major factors in the lack of a real highway bill.
But with LaHood’s big push on distracted driving, it often felt that infrastructure was not exactly his top priority. LaHood’s infrastructure focus also was on shifting the DOT’s priorities away from traditional highway-building. He was a big supporter of rail and public transit, and as an avid biker, of bike trails.
“This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized,” he said at one point.
Foxx, with his experience in public transportation, will likely not take us back to a highway-centric approach. But his focus on infrastructure is welcome. And the fact is, while trucks and highways still carry the lion’s share of our nation’s cargo, freight transportation today is a much more interconnected and multi-modal effort.
For Secretary Foxx, the next few years are more likely to look like a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces – and no picture to work from – than my daughter’s simple wooden puzzle.