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Foxx draws praise at Senate hearing for transportation post

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WASHINGTON Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, President Barack Obama’s U.S. transportation secretary nominee, had an easy two-hour confirmation hearing before a Senate committee Wednesday, with both Democrats and Republicans often praising Foxx and holding back any critical questions.

It appears likely that Foxx will become the nation’s 17th transportation secretary after what Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., called a “most amazing confirmation process” so far. Scott added that he had heard nothing but “kind comments” during the hearing before the Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which will later vote on the nomination.

Foxx would take over an agency that faces huge budget challenges, including mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration, as well as a diminishing fund to construct and maintain the country’s highways and transit systems.

Foxx, mayor since 2009, is well-versed in transit issues, which have been his passion as an elected official.

But he has clearly spent the last three weeks studying issues such as the future of air-traffic control, freight rail and highway funding.

Many senators used the hearing to lobby Foxx about their own transportation needs, such as ferries in Washington state.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who said Foxx would have a “noncontroversial nomination,” asked how the U.S. Department of Transportation can raise more revenue with the fact that gas tax revenues are declining, due to Americans driving less and buying more fuel-efficient cars.

“You are working away from your funding stream,” Blunt said. “It doesn’t make the formula work like it did.”

Foxx was sometimes vague in his answers. He declined to endorse a higher gasoline tax, as some transportation activists have called for, or for changing how the tax is collected by possibly taxing the distance people drive.

Scott, of South Carolina, asked Foxx whether he supported the proposed tolling of Interstate 95 in North Carolina, which is under consideration. Former Gov. Bev Perdue’s administration supported levying I-95 tolls to pay for the highway’s maintenance.

Foxx said he thinks tolling has a place, but he said “we won’t toll our way to prosperity.”

The most pointed part of the hearing came at the end, when committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, spoke for several minutes about what he believes is a need to be bold and raise more money for roads, bridges, air-traffic control and other infrastructure.

His comments came when there was only one other senator left in the room, first-term Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a conservative who has upset some senior leaders with his brash style. Rockefeller’s speech seemed directed at Cruz. But it perhaps also carried a message to Foxx, in urging him to be vocal.

“You can do all the squeezing and tightening, but the size of the U.S. government is smaller than under Eisenhower,” Rockefeller said. “What I want to say to you is to be a good secretary of transportation ... you have to goad us. ... I hope that you will push us. If you can’t do something, let us have it. Express your frustrations.”

No airport questions

Foxx wasn’t asked any questions about what has been perhaps his biggest struggle as mayor: the fight by the city of Charlotte to keep control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport rather than have it transferred to an independent authority.

Authority supporters have said the city is meddling in the airport’s affairs – a charge that Foxx has adamantly denied.

After Foxx was nominated, the Wall Street Journal’s conservative editorial page questioned whether Foxx would be a good transportation secretary, in part because of the allegations that the city has interfered with airport management. No Republican senator followed that line of questioning Wednesday.

He also wasn’t asked about his support for the Charlotte streetcar. Some conservative transit critics have questioned the Obama administration’s efforts to spend money on transit that makes cities more livable, rather than focusing solely on reducing congestion.

The committee will likely vote to approve Foxx, possibly later this month. His nomination would then go to the full Senate.

If approved, Foxx would oversee 53,000 full-time employees and budgets totaling $72 billion. He would replace Ray LaHood, who was a Republican congressman from Illinois before Obama tapped him as transportation secretary in 2009.

Charlotte roots

Foxx was introduced to the committee by the state’s two senators, Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Richard Burr. In his introductory speech, Foxx told the 24-member committee about growing up in Charlotte.

“Many times there would be a $20 bill on the table, and my family would have to choose between basic necessities and funding for a school field trip,” Foxx said. “Somehow, they always made the investment in me, and for that I am forever grateful.”

He said he held his first job when he was 12, at Discovery Place. He told the senators he rode the bus there after school.

Foxx came to the hearing with his wife, Samara Foxx. Their two children stayed home in Charlotte because of school.

As mayor, he said he “decided to make efficient and innovative transportation investment the centerpiece of Charlotte’s job creation and economic recovery efforts.”

He cited the light-rail extension to UNC Charlotte; breaking ground on the new Norfolk Southern intermodal facility; moving forward with the completion of Interstate 485; starting the streetcar and repairing the Yadkin River Bridge.

The Yadkin River Bridge project – on Interstate 85 north of Salisbury – was supported by Foxx. But it was primarily the result of Perdue’s creation of a special fund for high-impact transportation projects statewide.

During questioning, Foxx at times pivoted to his experience as mayor. When asked by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., about how Foxx would handle budget reductions at the Federal Aviation Administration that were mandated by the sequestration, Foxx talked about the city being required to balance its budget.

“When I took the oath of office, our revenues were $209 million less than they were the year before – we didn’t raise taxes,” Foxx said.

He proposed a tax increase in 2012 for capital projects, but the City Council rejected the plan. The city has increased bus fares, water and sewer bills, and stormwater fees to close the budget gaps.

He added: “If we are left with the sequester, I would work for a no-surprises result,” Foxx said.

Earlier in the hearing, Foxx said he would work to break down silos in the DOT, so rail, air and highway projects could be better integrated.

He cited his efforts in his first term to “help our schools and to help our county” as ways he has looked past traditional government barriers. He was referring to his push to give more than $1 million to Mecklenburg County to keep libraries open, as well as his lobbying to keep some city funding for school resource officers and crossing guards.

One person who sat in the committee room was John Kausner, who wore a button with the face of his daughter Lively, who was killed in the Colgan Air crash in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009. If confirmed as transportation secretary, Foxx would have responsibility for the FAA and aviation safety.

Kausner said he wants to meet with Foxx about the FAA implementing new rules for flight training.

“I liked Mayor Foxx,” Kausner said. “I think we were all pleased with him.” Curtis Tate of the Washington Bureau contributed.

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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