As Charlotte’s mayor, Anthony Foxx’s biggest setbacks have been transportation related: His inability to secure a 2.5-mile streetcar extension and the possibility that lawmakers could shift control of the airport from the city to an authority.
But after his nomination Monday by President Barack Obama to be U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Foxx could be in position to get his way, or at least increase his influence.
Since January, Foxx and City Council members have felt sidelined – and angry – as the N.C. General Assembly has considered a bill to create an airport authority to oversee Charlotte Douglas International Airport.
US Airways, the dominant carrier at Charlotte Douglas, has for months said it took no position over who controlled the airport. But the airline admitted last week that it had forwarded draft legislation of a bill to create an authority last summer, and that it met with business people supporting an authority.
Now Foxx, if approved by the U.S. Senate, would be in position to have significant influence over the airport, as well as US Airways and other airlines.
If the N.C. House approves the airport authority bill this month, the final transfer would still need approval by the Federal Aviation Administration, which is under the transportation secretary.
It’s possible the city of Charlotte could appeal to the FAA – and, by extension, Foxx – to stop the transfer. Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann declined to say in an interview Monday what the city’s legal strategy would be.
A city consultant, Bob Hazel, said last week that he believes Charlotte Douglas would be best governed by an authority. But he criticized the current bill being considered by the legislature, and said the process has been too hasty. He said that the city of Charlotte should have more representation on the authority board.
On Monday, Charlotte Aviation Director Jerry Orr said he doesn’t think Foxx’s new job will have an impact on the airport authority issue.
“I don’t think so,” Orr said. “I think he got a good job.”
US Airways is concerned about who will succeed Orr as aviation director, and the airline met with former City Manager Curt Walton last year about having a voice in picking the new director. Foxx has said he has always supported the airline having a say in who is the new aviation director.
Foxx would also be in a position to make a number of decisions, including ones that would impact the multi-billion dollar proposed merger of US Airways and American Airlines.
The Justice Department is responsible for enforcing antitrust regulation and approving airline mergers. But the DOT analyzes proposed mergers and advises the Justice Department.
One of the most contentious issues is whether the new American Airlines will have to give up gates at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C. The combined airline will control about two-thirds of the take-off and landing slots at that airport, and competitors such as JetBlue are trying to force the company to divest some of those slots to preserve competition.
Bill Swelbar, a research engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Center for Air Transportation, said he expects the DOT to analyze service from Washington D.C. But he said Foxx, if approved, would also be responsible for carrying out a number of consumer-protection issues, such as more transparency among fees airlines charge.
“The transportation secretary will be there to make sure consumer interests aren’t compromised,” Swelbar said.
The DOT is also responsible for granting permission to fly international routes, and oversees the transfer of international routes when mergers happen. US Airways has filed for permission to combine its international route authorities with American, an important step in the merger process.
US Airways spokesman John McDonald said the company is still working with federal agencies to gain approval for the merger.
Many US Airways executives were at a leadership conference Monday and unavailable. Foxx also couldn’t be reached for an interview.
For nearly a year, Foxx has tried unsuccessfully to include a $119 million streetcar extension into a nearly $1 billion capital plan. A majority of City Council members have said they are against the streetcar, or are wary of using property taxes to build it.
The mayor has held at least a half-dozen meetings with council members, but has been unable to get six votes.
As the transportation secretary nominee, Foxx could steer the debate with the prospect of millions of dollars of federal grant money.
The initial streetcar line, which is under construction, was funded mostly by a $25 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration. If Foxx’s nomination is approved, the FTA – which would be under Foxx’s domain – could help Charlotte again.
As the city continues budget deliberations, one possibility would be to set aside some money for the streetcar, contingent on a federal match. When asked by the Observer on Monday if that is an option, City Manager Ron Carlee said he is “exploring all options.”
City Council member Michael Barnes, a Democrat, said he expects the city to consider such a plan. He said Monday he would be open to approving the streetcar, if the money allocated was contingent on federal funds.
Former N.C. Transportation Secretary Gene Conti told the Observer Sunday that Foxx would be in a position to help Charlotte and North Carolina.
“Obviously he can’t just direct money willy-nilly to North Carolina,” Conti said, “but I will tell you that Illinois fared very well under Secretary LaHood,” the current DOT secretary who is from Peoria, Ill.
Among the projects that Illinois received: Funding for high-speed rail from Chicago to St. Louis.
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