Anthony Foxx: Cities Are the Places Where Transportation Solutions Will Incubate

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx speaks to auto executives at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx speaks to auto executives at the 2016 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Paul Sancya / AP Photo


Connecting state and local government leaders

The former Obama administration Transportation secretary sat down with Route Fifty to discuss the future of tech disruption, intergovernmental planning, transportation “welfare” and federal regulation.

WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has been quiet since the Obama administration’s January exit, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy.

The Charlotte mayor-turned-Cabinet member is in the midst of an inside-out professional assessment process, considering what sectors interest him and promises news in the near future about several fresh ventures.

Wherever he lands, Foxx said he will remain involved with transportation.

Route Fifty caught up with him on Thursday at The Volcker Alliance’s Rethinking Effective Government event, where he was a panelist, to talk about the state of U.S. transportation and what it means for states and localities.

Route Fifty: With the change of administrations in January, were you ever in contact with the new U.S Transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, through that transition process, and do you still talk to her at all?

Foxx: We talked a time or two as she was transitioning. I called to congratulate her on her nomination, and as the handoff occurred I believe we talked once or twice in that period.

You want to keep a respectful distance because obviously someone new coming into the role isn’t unlike the transition between presidents. You want to give that person space to go in the direction they think is the best.

I’m always available, but my phone hasn’t been ringing.

Route Fifty: During the Volcker Alliance event, you’re going to be talking about disruption in government. What do you see as the major disruptors in government right now, particularly on the transportation front?

Foxx: I classify the disruptions into categories. There’s demographic disruption, which is the population shifts the country is undergoing, growth, a lot of migration into areas that have traditionally been single modal like where I’m from in the Southeast. In the Western states, you’re starting to see people flocking to those areas, and that population concentration is creating a transportation crisis.

There’s what I might call infrastructure disruption, which is both the failure of infrastructure that we relied on for decades, and there’s another one that is less discussed but is just as important, which is the infrastructure we’re not building to tackle the demographic disruption. For example, there’s an unfortunate and false belief that roads are Republican and transit is Democratic, and if you actually look at red states’ and blue states’ demographics, what’s actually happening is many red states are becoming much more highly populated. And those states are going to face the same type of constraints on their roadways that places in the Northeast and Midwest historically have faced. Rather than criticizing transit, I think people should be embracing it, and instead of turning a blind eye to our state of disrepair in infrastructure, we should be owning up to it, facing it and passing a better system on to future generations.

Then there’s technological disruption, which I think is the most fascinating of all of them because there’s both incredible opportunity to completely bypass many of the problems we expect to have under incumbent technologies: safety issues, perhaps even the cost of actually getting the infrastructure that we need. But it’s complicated at the same time. On the one hand you have this energy among technological companies to innovate in much the same way they innovated with the internet. The problem with transportation is that it’s actually in the built environment, within the built world, and the innovation is going to be trickier. Its integration is going to have to be managed much more carefully than the integration of software and other things into the internet because that’s literally a virtual world; we’re talking about the Internet of Things now. So I think transportation may be the first major testbed for how the Internet of Things actually works, and I think that’s incredibly interesting.

And the final disruption is social disruption. Our politics are a little bit screwy right now. Maybe they’ve always been screwy. But what’s being unearthed is what I believe is a dynamic in this country of, on one side, people who feel like diversity is a great strength in the country—that we have to harness those strengths in order to realize the true potential of the country—and others who feel like we have layers in this society and those layers are deeply embedded and inevitable and we recognize who runs this place and just move on. I think that’s kind of the dichotomy we see, and when it comes to transportation, it’s interesting if you look back far more of our infrastructure has been built under the latter model than the former model. And I do think engineers, elected officials, planners, people who will be designing the infrastructure—and I’m not just talking about the hardcore stuff; I’m even talking about the people out in Silicon Valley who are dreaming up all these interesting ways for people to move and different use cases—everybody’s going to have to think about which society they want to have and build toward that. I argue strenuously for the former.

Route Fifty: Earlier you mentioned misperceptions surrounding the Republican and Democratic positions on transportation. Have you gotten a sense for the Trump administration’s priorities—roads versus transit, resilient versus non-resilient infrastructure?

Foxx: This administration seems to me to be in denial about climate change in general. I think they’ve actually excised the use of the word in documents throughout the administration. I think that is a real failure of leadership and could be ultimately not only detrimental to the standing of the U.S. vis-à-vis the rest of the world but really costly, at the end of the day, in terms of lives, in terms of money. If you just look at the intensity of the weather events we’ve seen just this year and the untold costs that will be paid as the result it’s not even fiscally responsible to not acknowledge climate change.

In terms or roads versus transit, my sense is that within the Republican Party there’s probably a very deep wedge there. I think everybody probably believes roads are more important. But there are some on the Republican side of the fence who understand the importance of transit, and some of them even have transit in their backyards.

I don’t think the country realizes what the important task of transportation is right now. If you look at China, it’s economically strong in concentrations around urban areas, but it still has a wide swath of the country that is not connected. The road systems are very primitive in those places, and it will take China a long time to build an end-to-end system the way we have. And we have layers. We have rail. We have roads. We have airports. We have the most elaborate network of transportation in the world. To achieve what I think is our best outcome our challenge is actually not just repairing it, not just figuring out the precise solutions that are needed from place to place to solve our economic challenges, to reduce congestion. Our challenge is finding a way to make all of these different modes greater than the sum of the parts, and that involves coordinated planning across modes of transportation so that we’re getting more out of each one.

That’s very difficult in this country because states manage highways, local governments manage transit systems, the private sector runs most of our commercial carriers and our freight rail systems. Passenger isn’t a reality in some parts of the country the way I wish it was, and in other parts it’s very much viable. Even our ports, for example, with post-Panamax vessels now seeking places to dock on the East Coast of our country, they’re going to have massive amounts of container volume, which is going to want to go in double-stack containers either on trucks or on rail. But just to show you how interconnected all of this is, if you have the most efficient port it still won’t help you if you have bridges that are too low for those double-stack containers to pass through. That’s another very clear example of how all of these different modes of transportation need to work better.

I actually think the country needs to take a page from many cities and actually have a planner—someone who is not political, someone who maybe has a term of the length of the Federal Reserve chair, a 10-year term, long enough so they can do things. And to really help the country figure out how to make the fingers of the hand make a fist when it comes to transportation because we don’t have that capacity yet.

Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx presents the Smart City Challenge award to Columbus, Ohio Mayor Andrew Ginther on June 23, 2016. (Jay LaPrete / AP Images)

Route Fifty: What would you like to see out of a Trump infrastructure package—your wishlist of sorts?

Foxx: First of all, if the package is focused totally on public-private partnerships the country will still be stuck in traffic because private money is going to want to go to where there’s revenue. And there are some projects in the country that are necessary, important, critical that will not spin out revenue that the private sector will never be attracted to. So the first point to be made is trillion-dollar plans aren’t necessarily fundable because what’s really going to matter to you and me and to our economy is whether the projects that really need to happen actually happen.

I would like to see a more demand-driven model for transportation. Today we kind of have transportation welfare, where it’s pretty much doled out no matter what, and there’s really no accountability for outcomes or performance. MAP-21 reauthorization put in place some performance standards requirements that are starting to come out, but there’s really no teeth to it. There’s no penalty to a state for investing in a state senator’s favorite pet project that takes tons of money away from something that could actually increase mobility or create more jobs. I think that’s a challenge.

Now the other side of that euphemism of welfare is it does create political support for getting something passed, so one has to readily acknowledge it. But I think there’s a better way for cities that have plans on the books and things that will actually move the dial but, because there’s no ready funding source for those projects to get in line for, they just sit on someone’s shelf for a while. I’d like to see things like the TIGER program or what’s now called the INFRA program, these discretionary programs could be done at a much higher scale and have much more impact, and they could also jump start a wave of innovation in transportation that would be coming from the bottom up and not from the top down.

The other thing I’d probably like to see in the bill is the administration make a greater effort to define the technology space a little better. We did as much as we could under President Obama. The clock ran out. We were able to get the first round of automated vehicle guidance out, some of the necessary rulemakings out on drone, but there’s still open questions that I think will frustrate industry, consumers, safety advocates, and state and local governments if there isn’t some definition put in place.

One of the challenges of this administration is that the anti-regulatory rhetoric, which I think is mostly targeted at economic stuff, could be a hindrance to them in terms of defining this area because the rule may follow the important exception which in this case is autonomous vehicles, where states are looking to the federal government saying, “Are you gonna regulate this, or is this our deal?” Industry, which is trying to figure out if or when a crash occurs who’s going to be liable for that and what’s going to be the protocol for figuring out whether there was a defect that should make a particular vehicle subject to a recall and what competencies is government going to need as a path today to be able to figure that out. These are enormous things that it’s important to get to the bottom of, but you have to understand that there’s a regulatory role to government to actually get there.

Route Fifty: Almost a year into the Trump administration, have you seen any changes to grant or loan programs that might affect federal support for state and local projects?

Foxx: Not so far.

Route Fifty: How would you evaluate the administration on transportation to date? Have you seen any cause for concern or, on the flip side, peace of mind?

Foxx: I don’t know. I have my views about things, some of them I’ve shared. But the reality is that different administrations have different orientations, and it’s hard to be critical of the direction of a department without fundamentally questioning the direction of the administration. So, yeah, I have differences of opinion about these things, but I think the most important thing is that the cornerstones that we put in place on autonomous vehicles, the cornerstones that we put in place in terms of spending a lot of time on the road and shoe leather on Capitol Hill getting a long-term surface transportation bill passed—that my successor could then use to try to help build the country—those things are still there. I feel like the most important pieces of the work I did remain, and they remain as testament to the fact they’re still being utilized.

Route Fifty: Moving forward, what do you see as the benchmarks to watch over the next three years to get a sense for how transportation is faring?

Foxx: [Former Education Secretary] Arne Duncan and I used to have a conversation, where I’d say to him “our departments are the long-term departments” because we actually don’t know what impact an educational policy has or what impact a transportation policy has for decades. And that’s partly because the building cycle is longer, and the educational system is longer. A kid who’s 1 year old, we’ll find out how well they do when they turn 18.

What I would look at is: How aggressively is the administration attacking safety issues? Are they, in the name of being business friendly, putting people at risk in some way, shape or form? I haven’t seen that there has been an issue there, but that’s obviously one of the more fundamental missions of the department.

Secondly, to what extent are they paying back places that they did well in versus doing what’s right for the country in terms of transportation. We did a report called “Beyond Traffic” that laid out the country’s transportation challenges, and if you look at everything we did, from our first round of FASTLANE grants to the TIGER program, we were more or less tracking solutions to a lot of the problems we laid out in that report.

There’s been a lot of discussion about rural America versus urban America, and we had several rounds of our TIGER program where we went well above the rule minimum in the fund rounds precisely because we saw opportunities to create connections. With these discretionary programs, it’s not formulaic because you’re captive to what’s presented to you. Hopefully they will find a way to make a mark and lay some markers out there for state and local governments to be bold and to be aggressive in attacking some of the disruptions we talked about in the beginning.

The other piece is, are they going to replicate in some way the Smart City Challenge that we did? That was one of the most interesting processes that I was involved in. But going back to what I said about technology, you have these guys with pocket protectors sitting in their garages that are coming up with all these interesting ideas, but they’re not completely transfixed on the real world as you and I know it. Then you have cities that are recognizing all these demographic shifts, and they’re seeing it much faster than the national government is seeing it. And they’re reacting to it much faster. But they actually don’t know what out there. And the Smart City Challenge was a bit of a jump ball. It said to cities “alright, dream of the solutions to the problems you see coming” and to the technology companies “get out of your garage and figure out how to take this technology you’ve got and actually solve a problem in the real world.” Part of the way I measured success in that challenge was could we get cities to raise their hand. We got 70-some cities to raise their hands. Many of them are still working on the plans that they presented to us, and I think the technology world got excited because they started to see a municipal services demand for some of this technology that’s been waiting to find a place to go.

So I think there’s a lot the department can do to advance this conversation of how do we find third-rail solutions. The convergence of technology, the real world and cities’ infrastructure creates an enormous opportunity to make huge leaps, things like: management of rush hour, modeling new road construction, they’re using predictive technologies that will help you make better decisions, the whole idea of what parking is going to mean in the future and whether cities can reclaim the land currently being used for parking and repurpose it for things like affordable housing. There are so many different directions all of this goes in, and we’re just at the very beginning of it. But I do believe cities will be the place where this stuff incubates, and I also believe this is an international opportunity, where cities in this country could lead the way for places outside this country.

The last thing I’ll say about this smart cities thing is there’s also a place to do this concept in a rural context. It probably would mean creating clusters or rural communities that would engage together in dealing with a challenge like this, but thinking about rural communities in this context as well would be a very valuable thing.

Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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