The Senate unanimously confirmed Charlotte, N.C., Mayor Anthony Foxx on Thursday as the next U.S. transportation secretary.
The 100-0 vote came toward the end of a contentious Senate debate on immigration. Transportation secretaries, however, nearly always get overwhelming support.
Foxx, who’s 42, will immediately confront safety and funding challenges in a large department that oversees the nation’s highway, transit, aviation and rail networks.
Skeptics have questioned whether he brings enough heft to the job. But supporters admire his push for improvements to Charlotte’s airport, highways and transit systems. Others like his experience working with the federal government on the local level.
Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., said in a floor speech Thursday that Foxx was well prepared to lead the Transportation Department. “I have the utmost confidence he will serve in this role with great distinction,” she said.
Foxx already has connections on Capitol Hill from his days as a congressional staffer. But he’ll have a tough act to follow in Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who’s served in President Barack Obama’s Cabinet for more than four years.
LaHood, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1994, leveraged his strong ties with lawmakers at the department. He managed tens of billions of dollars in spending on infrastructure improvements, from bike paths to highway interchanges, as part of Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program.
LaHood, who gave his farewell remarks Thursday at the National Press Club, called the current state of roads, bridges and highways in America "one big pothole."
Many in transportation policy circles wanted him to stay. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said LaHood would be ranked as one of the top transportation secretaries ever. But Blumenauer, a leading proponent of transit, also said he looked forward to working with Foxx.
“He understands the challenges,” Blumenauer said. “I think he will be a solid partner.”
Foxx will have a chance to make his mark. The department faces an immediate problem in finding a sustainable funding stream for badly needed improvements to roads, bridges and transit systems. It also has struggled to replace the radar-based air traffic-control system, which dates to the 1950s, with a modern, satellite-based system.
The Highway Trust Fund, which was created in the 1950s to pay for the construction and maintenance of the Interstate Highway System, is going broke. Since the 1980s, the fund also has supported transit systems – a signature issue for Foxx.
Federal gasoline-tax revenue has become insufficient to support the highway fund, and Congress has bailed it out with more than $50 billion from the U.S. Treasury in the past five years. The 18.4-cents-a-gallon tax has remained unchanged in two decades, and Foxx will have to consider whether to raise it or replace it with something else. Almost any choice would force drivers to pay more, and would be unpopular.
Jack Wells, the chief Transportation Department economist, recently told a Capitol Hill briefing hosted by the conservative Free Congress Foundation that the U.S. needed to spend $170 billion a year on “worthwhile improvements” in transportation but that it spends only $90 billion a year now.
LaHood said the country was near the breaking point for the conditions of its infrastructure – before the problems become too big to ignore.
"Look, this is no fun, being way down at the bottom of the list on infrastructure and watching China build 85 airports this year,” LaHood said.
UPDATE: More information included in second paragraph