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Secretary Foxx dedicated to a transportation system that works

Flickr user Michael Salisbury (cc).

A Chicago subway tunnel. Chicago's Red Line could receive a big upgrade thanks to a federal Core Capacity grant.

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to chat with Anthony Foxx, who became the U.S. Secretary of Transportation last year and was previously mayor of Charlotte, N.C. Foxx emphasized to me that our national transportation system suffers from a dire lack of investment, noting that funding “Is going to fall short of the mark in terms of meeting every single need that’s out there.”

As mayor, Foxx was a major proponent of investing in improved transportation in his home town, supporting the construction of a new streetcar line through Charlotte’s downtown and a 9.3-mile light rail extension linking the business district with the city’s largest university.

This month, Foxx has been touring the South to emphasize the importance of investing in our transportation system. There is plenty of evidence not only that U.S. infrastructure—particularly in older regions such as Chicago—is falling into disrepair, but also that revenue is far from adequate to pay for improvements. The Highway Trust Fund, which is funded by fuel taxes and is the source of the federal share of transportation funding, is expected to become insolvent by the end of this summer. The Fund suffers from declining rates of driving, higher fuel efficiency and a fuel tax rate that has not changed since 1993.

After in-depth analysis and consultation with regional partners, the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) has developed a framework for prioritizing the projects that are funded and developing new revenue sources to pay for them. Foxx’s comments to me indicate that he is largely supportive of MPC’s agenda.

Foxx did not commit to any specifics on new funding, other than supporting President Obama’s proposal to use business tax reform to fund a $302 billion, four-year transportation bill, which would represent a significant increase over current funding levels. The secretary emphasized that “If there are other ideas [about funding] that emerge along the way towards an agreement on this very important issue, we certainly will listen to those ideas and consider them.”

With a bipartisan group of senators this spring, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) announced that she would push for the Congress to move forward with a four-year extension of the existing transportation bill, MAP-21, which provides funding at a significantly lower level than President Obama proposes. Sen. Boxer has not specified the revenue source she would offer to pay for these investments.

Foxx was receptive to the idea of tolling our existing Interstate highways, a practice that is currently banned in many states by federal law: “Given the situation at the federal level with the uncertainty of funding the Highway Trust Fund… we do believe that part of our responsibility is to help states and local project sponsors develop new options, new sources of revenue… We would never tell a state or a local project sponsor to toll but that optionality is increasingly becoming something that states are interested in, and we’ll consider finding ways to help when that’s an option that states want to consider.”

In other words, if Congress, states and local governments develop support for new revenues—whether that means an increased fuel tax, a vehicle-miles traveled fee or more tolling—the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is likely not to oppose them. The secretary, moreover, emphasized the importance of public-private partnerships, saying “We certainly want the private markets thinking about ways to plow their assets into American infrastructure.”

Foxx also addressed the role of the Dept. of Transportation in encouraging transit-oriented development (TOD), a priority for MPC, noting that “Transit-oriented development is clearly a trend in this country.” But he shied away from direct Dept. of Transportation investments in TOD, suggesting instead that “One of the most important ways that we can support the growth of transit-oriented development is to ensure that we have not only stable funding in our transit system, but also that that investment is matching the kind of population surges that we’re seeing in many of our metro areas.”

As for high-speed rail, a priority of Foxx’s predecessor Ray LaHood, Foxx said “I think there are lots of reasons why this is an inflection point for high-speed rail. There’ll be bumps and bruises along the way, but it’s a really important step in the progression of transportation in the U.S.”

Based on our framework for funding reform and new revenue sources, MPC is working on the next transportation bill with Transportation for America and the Metropolitan Business Alliance, a joint effort of 26 participating regional business association CEOs, representing major metropolitan areas across the country that together account for more than 47 percent of U.S. GDP. With support from the business and freight sectors growing, now is the time to develop an appropriate plan for tomorrow’s transportation systems. MPC, our partners and leaders like Secretary Foxx can reinforce the importance of our transportation backbone to this country’s economic and social prosperity.

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