The Transportation Guy | Brunswick Group

The Transportation Guy

Anthony Foxx on the past, present and future of getting around.

Anthony Foxx was a New York University-trained lawyer serving as the Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, when President Obama recruited him to serve as US Secretary of Transportation in 2013, a post he held until 2017. Since then he has served as an advisor to transportation-related firms such as Autotech Ventures. For more than three years, he served as Policy Advisor to the President and CEO of Lyft, the ride-sharing service. Brunswick Partner Susan Lagana, former Director of Public Affairs for the US Department of Transportation under Mr. Foxx, interviewed him in December shortly after the passage of President Biden’s Infrastructure bill.

What do you think the infrastructure package is going to accomplish? Is it transformative and what is it missing?
The legislation is light years ahead of anything we've seen in surface transportation bills in the recent past, but its transformative effect remains to be seen.

Most of the money dedicated to transportation will go into formula programs at the state level. Congress, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, did very little to change the distribution of those dollars. The 80-20 split [80% of federal transportation dollars of highways, 20% for public transportation] is still intact. States will probably spread this money around like peanut butter unless the federal government imposes some real criteria with penalties for not achieving our goals.

That said, USDOT [United States Department of Transportation] will be standing up 40 new discretionary programs and there's $120 billion of discretionary money to distribute over the next five years That is a huge opportunity for this administration to put its imprint on our infrastructure system. I would expect to see projects that could be more resilient in their design and construction, projects that reduce the climate effects of our transportation system and hopefully projects that speak to this administration's focus on transportation equity.

If you had the discretionary pen now, what other ideas would you focus on?
I would have loved to have had as much money to move around as Secretary Buttigieg will have. The opportunity the department has right now is to use discretionary dollars to shape a general approach that the federal government would like to see replicated at the state and local levels.

The government can support good examples of resilient design and construction that may not have survived the state level prioritization process. I would put a very high priority on equity. There will be projects proposed to beautify freeways, maybe to bury some, maybe tear some down.

A lot of times at USDOT we’d get a request for a project that might cost say $200 million. And then the sponsor would ask the federal government to pay the whole $200 million, and we offered $20 million to do the project and the state would have to find the other $180 million to do it.

What will be interesting is to see is if the administration is able to embed its priorities in the state programs by leveraging some of the discretionary dollars to incent the states to use more of their formula dollars to do infrastructure as well, perhaps to promote equity and perhaps to reduce climate impacts.

I would have loved to have had as much money to move around as Secretary Buttigieg will have.

I know from working with you how important infrastructure and transportation equity is to you and how much it factors into your personal story. Would you share that a little bit with us? Should reparations be part of the equation?
Pick any city in this country, New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, and the same thing happened in the 1950s and 60s. The freeway system was mostly about connecting rural areas to marketplaces, and its designers usually took the road of least resistance, which was through those communities that did not have adequate voting rights, representation, or decisional bodies. The communities bisected by the freeways were largely poor and African American.

Federal remuneration efforts fell flat. Going back to urban renewal, people were paid less than the fair market value of their property. They were relocated and had to rebuild their lives in other parts of their cities. Those people and their families are still around.

I do think there should be a willingness to form a national commission or some type of task force to retrace some of that decision making and that history and restore justice to those families.

We are not talking about going back as far as slavery. This is 50, 60 years ago, and if not the parents, then the kids and the grandkids of those affected are still around. We have an opportunity to repair, but mostly to understand what happened and why. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme, and maybe we have a chance to break a cycle of burying aspects of our national history that we’d rather forget.

As Secretary of Transportation, you were always really futuristic in your approach to technology, and how it could transform transportation. Where do you think we are now, and where do you think we are heading in the next 10 to 15 years?
We're at the very early stages of a tsunami of innovation in transportation. When I was Secretary, we tried to put in place mechanisms for the department to integrate new technology into our transportation system as safely as possible. We made some progress, and the last administration failed to continue much of it. They had an all-encompassing view against regulation. However, with new transportation technology, regulation can actually be a catalyst. I think this administration will take a very forward-looking perspective.

Take something like drones, which have incredibly interesting and important advantages from the standpoint of both consumers and commercial operators, which to their credit, the administration “got.” The idea that we can reduce the amount of time that it takes medication to reach a far-flung rural population from days to minutes is mind blowing. The opportunities for rural America are almost infinite.

I think Trump fell down on driverless cars. Since the advent of the automobile, state departments of transportation, via their departments of motor vehicles, have licensed us to drive and set up drivers’ tests. But what happens when software is driving the car? Is that a 50-state issue, with rules and standards that are the same across state lines?

We believed that the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards were sufficient to give us the authority to regulate the software. And if the federal government could set up rules and create approval processes for software, you wouldn't need to have each state developing its own rule set. It would be great for Congress to confirm this by passing a bill that said that. Then there would be clarity. If manufacturers are operating in a situation where they must get 50 different approvals for the same technology, it's much harder.

There are many, many examples of how having a one stop place for regulation would accelerate technology and transportation.

In Europe, they have done a better job integrating vehicular traffic with their historical sites and city centers. They protect the beauty of their cities.

To say that regulation can be an accelerant seems such a counterintuitive thing to say. You have traveled to Europe and seen what they are doing to address transportation challenges, particularly related to climate. What can we learn from what they are doing?
Europe did not make the mistake of going crazy for cars the way the US did. You look at a place like Seattle, they put a freeway directly between the downtown area and the beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean. In Europe, they have done a better job integrating vehicular traffic with their historical sites and city centers, They protect the beauty of their cities.

Europeans have also integrated more different types of transportation into their cities. Here we tore up street cars because the auto industry was pushing for buses, which are more flexible in where there they can be used. But street cars created neighborhoods and economic growth that was sustainable for a long period of time, and you see they are still running in many European cities.

Also, in Europe and parts of Asia, they have mastered intercity passenger rail. We have a long way to catch up in the US. The Northeast coalition is proposing $170 to $217 billion to clean up some routes on the northeast corridor and shorten the trip by an hour between Washington, DC and New York. That's awesome. But we also have an opportunity to extend the Northeast Corridor southwards and make it more competitive with air travel.

It would be a huge economic catalyst for cities like Richmond, Raleigh, Charlotte, Greenville, and Atlanta, and have a dramatically positive economic impact on some of the rural areas in between. Much of the design and planning work is already happening. A big jolt of money to extend the Northeast corridor southward is the most logical next major intercity passenger rail upgrade after repairs to the Hudson tunnels.

I think Europeans have been looking at us for the last several decades saying, what happened to their transportation system? The federal government now has a chance to flip that, and I hope we're able to do it.

What are your political predictions for 2022? Where do you think we're heading in the near in the near term here when it comes to the political landscape?
I’m less interested now in the parlor contest between Democrats and Republicans, who's up who's down, than how much concern and action are we willing to undertake to protect this fragile democracy of ours. It’s not a question of simply passing a bill or some of the tactical things that are being discussed. Who's running for what office in some ways is irrelevant if the public doesn't have a strong conviction that we've got institutions that need to be protected and preserved.

I hope that people on both sides of the aisle will work to preserve the country that we love, but it's going to be up to the public and the average citizen out there to hold elected officials accountable. That's where my attention is right now.

How do I see that playing out? Unfortunately, our democracy is more imperiled. While we have never been perfect as a country, and we've never gotten every, single thing right, we are right enough to solve the problems we have and when we participate the right way, and work together the right way, good things can happen.

I'm worried that we're losing that sense. And I think that's beyond a campaign cycle. I think it's something much deeper that we have to contend with.

I'll be looking forward to seeing how you contribute to that conversation.


Susan Lagana is a Partner in the Washington, DC office focused on public affairs and political issues.