In his first 15 months as U.S. transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx has dealt with plane crashes, a train explosion and a crisis with America’s biggest car-maker.
Now he’s facing what could be the largest safety recall in automotive history.
Two U.S. senators last week asked Foxx to launch an immediate recall of cars with potentially deadly Takata airbags, a move consumer advocates say could affect 30 million vehicles.
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It’s the latest challenge for Charlotte’s former mayor who, since his 2013 appointment by President Barack Obama, has managed a sprawling department that faces daunting challenges and scarce resources.
“He’s doing extremely well in challenging times,” says James Burnley, who led the 55,000-employee department under President Ronald Reagan. “The secretary is the leading spokesman on transportation issues. … He has embraced that role.”
But Foxx has come under fire from some consumer advocates, who say he shares blame for lax oversight by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, most recently with the airbags blamed for at least three deaths.
“There are more deaths (in the United States) due to Takata airbags than Ebola,” says Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “Where is the secretary’s sense of emergency?”
Foxx has had his share of emergencies.
On Capitol Hill, he has fought to prevent the Highway Trust Fund, the major source of transportation funding, from going broke. And like a latter-day Paul Revere, he has traveled the country “ringing alarm bells” about a looming crisis as America’s surging population outstrips the infrastructure to support it.
Robert Puentes, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, says Foxx is running a department in transition.
“He’s trying to navigate through an agency (that’s) trying to do more with less, at a time when there’s not a lot of help from Washington for transportation,” Puentes says.
Engaging the private sector
That was on display last month when Foxx co-hosted a gathering at the U.S. Treasury Department called the Infrastructure Investment Summit. Its goal: to kick-start public-private partnerships to help address a trillion-dollar infrastructure deficit.
“When you go around the country, you can see the evidence of the cracked pavement, the crumbling roads and bridges, and the challenges you can see in the future,” he told the roomful of business and institutional investors.
He extolled the city of Los Angeles, where local leaders are using federal credit assistance as part of an innovative financing plan to accelerate a dozen highway projects.
“That’s an example of a large city that’s taking ownership of building its future,” Foxx told a reporter.
L.A.’s innovation, he says, offers a model for his hometown.
“The time I was leading Charlotte we had no growth,” he says. “We were trying to figure out how to scoop water out of the boat and just keep things going. I hope that the mentality down there has moved more toward an offensive position as opposed to having to play so much defense.”
Fighting for the trust fund
New financing models haven’t replaced old ones.
In February, Foxx joined Obama in unveiling a $302 billion investment plan that would have averted the imminent insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund. Foxx went on an eight-state, 13-city bus tour to promote it.
On July 31, a day before the DOT was going to cut construction spending by 28 percent, delaying thousands of projects and costing 700,000 jobs, Congress passed a stopgap measure that will keep the trust fund solvent until spring.
In August, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected the fund faces a $115 billion deficit by 2024.
“Secretary Foxx has been confronted as much as any member of the Cabinet by the dysfunction in Washington,” says White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. “When we can’t get the Highway Trust Fund reauthorized … he’s forced then to do more with less.”
Along the way, Foxx has won over some Capitol Hill skeptics.
“I was a little concerned he might not have the breadth or depth or knowledge of transportation issues,” says Rep. Bill Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. “I quickly realized that the strength he brings to the table was the fact that he was mayor of a big city.
“There are issues we disagree on, no question about it. (But) you can build a rapport and a relationship with somebody if you can find that common ground and move things forward.”
Consumer advocates are less enthusiastic.
Their concerns involve the department’s regulatory role, particularly that of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Critics say the agency has been slow to respond to safety problems such as Takata and before that, General Motors’ ignition switches, blamed for 19 deaths.
Last month, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee issued a 44-page report calling NHTSA “an agency struggling to keep pace with the industry it is responsible for overseeing. … There is a tendency to deflect blame and point the finger at others.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri grilled the agency’s interim director on whether the agency was fulfilling its role as a “cop on the beat.”
NHTSA’s problems started long before Foxx took charge. But some consumer advocates say he hasn’t done enough to regulate the regulators.
“When you have an agency in your department that’s responsible for death and injury on the highway, and it’s being severely criticized by the Congress, it’s really important for him to be very aware of the criticisms and to have something to say about it,” says Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA head who later served as president of Public Citizen.
Foxx asked the DOT’s inspector general to review NHTSA’s handing of the GM matter.
But longtime consumer activist Ralph Nader calls Foxx “one of the most hands-off secretaries of transportation I can remember.”
“He’s like a public relations man,” Nader says.
Ditlow, of the Center for Auto Safety, says activists are concerned that the White House has yet to name a permanent NHTSA administrator after the post has been vacant for nearly a year.
Takata’s problems involve air bag inflators that can rupture, causing metal fragments to fly out like shrapnel in a crash. Many automakers have so far limited their recalls to a few high-humidity states. Ditlow and others say that’s not enough.
“The question for Secretary Foxx is, ‘Look, if you have these really big public safety issues you need to step in and take charge because NHTSA isn’t,” Ditlow says.
Foxx says that’s exactly what he’s doing.
“Our first and most important priority at the (department) is safety,” he said in a statement Saturday. “It is a dynamic mission that involves constant vigilance. We will never stop working to keep the traveling public safe and that always requires holding ourselves and industry to high standards.”
Since Foxx took office, the department has adopted safety rules such as requiring rear visibility cameras in new cars and seat belts in new buses.
But Claybrook compares Foxx to his predecessor, Republican Ray LaHood.
“Maybe it’s just a different way of operating,” she says. “LaHood I hold up as a model secretary, engaged … willing to bite the bullet on tough decisions. You just don’t see that with Foxx. He’s just not that visible.”
Taking the long view
In July, just ahead of the vote on the transportation bill, Foxx and 11 predecessors, including former Secretary Elizabeth Dole, wrote an open letter to Congress.
“Never in our nation’s history has America’s transportation system been on a more unsustainable course,” they wrote.
Foxx has trumpeted the DOT’s work on what he called a 30-year transportation vision. “We need to lay out what we think policymakers are going to be facing over the next 30 years,” he told Politico.
Some credit Foxx for taking a long view. “Anthony knows we have to build the country not only to where we know it will be but where we want it to be,” says McDonough, the White House chief of staff.
Jesse Prentice-Dunn, the transportation policy analyst for the Sierra Club, sees Foxx taking the department in the right direction.
“He’s asking folks to plan decades ahead so we have a transportation system for the 21st century,” Prentice-Dunn says. “And that should be applauded.”
Remembering his roots
It’s been a heady ride for the former mayor.
He remembers the awe at seeing his name on a chair in the Cabinet room for the first time. He’s flown with the president on Air Force One. Played basketball at the Camp David presidential retreat.
He’s rarely home before 9, his BlackBerry never out of reach. Through mid-October, he’d traveled to 40 states, 97 cities and seven countries.
Foxx, who lives with his family in suburban Maryland, hasn’t forgotten his roots. Born to a single mother, he was raised by his grandparents. After graduating from West Charlotte High, he became Davidson College’s first black student body president and went on to law school at New York University.
“It’s not home, that’s for sure,” he says of Washington. “I try not to lose sight of that because part of the strength of my service here is a lot of what I learned growing up in Charlotte and, of course, having experiences as an adult in Charlotte.”