Anthony Foxx is the current United States Secretary of Transportation. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2013. Secretary Foxx previously served as Mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina from 2009 to 2013. He was first elected to Charlotte City Council in 2005, and upon his mayoral victory became Charlotte’s second African-American and youngest mayor.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your time as Secretary of Transportation?
There has been a quiet revolution occurring in transportation, and I have been privileged to be a catalyst for it. We have worked as a department to harness technology to improve quality and safety, and that can be seen in our work on driverless cars, drones, positive train control, and NextGen. In almost every way, we changed the mindset of the transportation system to be more future-focused and less rearview mirror-oriented. We have also worked hard to expand opportunity in transportation. Many structural barriers exist to inhibit fluidity between the middle class and the poor, and some of those barriers are transportation related. The more we can bring those barriers down and create real connectivity between people, the more our society is going to be one in which, no matter where you are from, you have a chance to succeed.
What is your vision regarding transportation safety? How do you think the rise of autonomous vehicles will affect safety?
Our goal is to reach zero fatalities, and the Department of Transportation (DOT) is working every day across a range of platforms, from public education and fair motor vehicle safety standards to the work that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does, to achieve zero deaths and accidents. The promise of autonomous cars and trucks is compelling. The data tells us we could achieve up to 80 percent reductions in accidents and fatalities. This is a potential game changer. In order to achieve those results, on the federal end we must create the expectation in the autonomous vehicle industry that safety is a necessary focus. That is why DOT is working towards putting out guidance that will signal to the industry what DOT will expect as this industry grows. [The guidance] won’t be the final word, but will serve as the basic architecture for how we develop rules going forward. There remains a lot of work to do on our end, and there is still a lot of work the industry has to do to raise the level of confidence in these vehicles. Consumers will have to discern what these autonomous vehicles can do and cannot do and practice those differences accordingly.
Compared to other developed nations, why has the US historically been so resistant to funding transit projects?
We created the car, and the car has created many jobs. There is a reflexive fear that if we brought in a palate of transportation choices, that we would somehow undermine the automobile industry. I don’t believe that, and I actually think there will be sustained demand for all transportation modes. The US population is going to increase by 70 million over the next 30 years. That’s more people competing for space on our highways, on our railways, in our airports, and in every way you can imagine. There will simultaneously remain many available markets for automobiles and be a ready market for greater transit and intercity passenger rail. When one transport mode is constrained, having multiple transportation choices will be a lifesaver for someone who has to go to the doctor’s office, go to the grocery store, or pick up their kids from school. The issue at hand is not “either/or” but “both/and,” and I do believe we are a “both/and” country, and we will need to be as our population increases.
Do you believe the gas tax should be increased to pay for the construction and maintenance of transportation infrastructure?
We have several administration proposals that I have been responsible for putting forward along with the president. They include using a revised international tax code to help put substantial, one-time funding into transportation. They also include using an oil barrel fee to help pay for the infrastructure we need going forward. However, there are substantial questions about the long- term viability of fuel taxes in general. All transportation stakeholders, including nonprofits, states, local governments, and individual citizens, need to lock arms and force our national legislature to develop an effective sustainable system to pay for transportation infrastructure.… Beyond questions of how you pay for [transportation infrastructure], the question that has not been discussed adequately is “What are we paying for?” Are we paying for a system that will be road-centric, or are we paying for a system that will consider roads as part of a larger ecosystem of transportation choices? [That larger ecosystem] is the direction in which the country needs to go. How you pay for that has to be debated, and I look forward to being part of that debate, even when I’m no longer secretary.
How has past transportation policy contributed to structural racism in the US?
One has to remember that America’s interstate highway system was substantially funded and constructed by the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, which was passed prior to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and prior to the Voting Rights Act. That is reflected in what was built and designed at that time, which quite frankly, plowed through communities and areas that could least impact the political system. When people can’t vote, they generally can’t impact the political system.
How can transportation policy now work to alleviate these structural inequities?
We have to take a holistic approach. Much of our infrastructure is at the end of its useful life and needs to be rebuilt. The opportunity we have now is a once in a generation opportunity to actually build better: to reconnect communities, to interface with communities differently, to be kinder and gentler with how infrastructure is developed and built, and as transportation professionals, to not have a “we know better” approach. We are working to embed those types of practices into every stage of the development of new infrastructure in our country. Working with these communities won’t make the development process longer, but the process will actually be shorter and more efficient, as a good input process creates good output with fewer tie-ups at the end.
As gentrification in inner cities has pushed low-income communities into suburbs with weaker transport networks, how has DOT policy changed and responded? What are some steps that can be taken to increase opportunity in these suburban communities?
If you are income-constrained, it is now easier in many places to buy or rent in the suburbs than it is to buy or rent in the urban core. Yet, the urban core is where most of the transportation choices are. These include transit systems, biking, walking, rideshare services, as well as the conventional street networks. As these communities are being pushed out into the suburbs, they are losing their mobility. If this trend continues, we are going to have rings of poverty surrounding urban cores across the country.
What are we doing about it? We are pushing for greater flexibility in federal investment. I have argued strenuously that we need to break ourselves away from the idea that transportation system is only roads. Roads are part of the transportation system, but the transportation system is also transit. It is also intercity passenger rail, biking, and walking. Right now transportation funding does not recognize that as flexibly as it should.