Word comes today that Barack Obama is going to tap Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx to be his next Transportation Secretary.
It’s a savvy choice from the standpoint of the White House’s politics. Charlotte is a fast-growing and successful sunbelt city, and Foxx is well-regarded locally and politically associated with efforts to make it a bit less of a sunbelt sprawl zone and a bit more of a dense urban area. There was a lot of interest in North Carolina in recruiting Foxx for a statewide run, but he didn’t seem interested in doing that and had announced plans to step down as mayor. This will let him move on from municipal government while retaining a public profile that could set him up for a gubernatorial or senatorial run down the road.
As a substantive matter, the Charlotte Streetcar Project is not my favorite kind of mass transit. Building a streetcar line that runs in mixed traffic is a lot more expensive than simply upgrading the local bus routes (which could be as simple as buying an extra bus and hiring an extra driver so the buses come more frequently) while providing at best a minor upgrade in transportation quality. They can work as a kind of urban real estate development tool—here in DC the H Street Streetcar has helped spur lots of new development along its route even though the city hasn’t managed to build it yet—but they’re not good transportation policy qua transportation policy. In the scheme of things, I like a mayor who’s invested in transity and density much more than the majority of transportation secretaries we’ve had in America but my dream candidate would have only put forward great transportation projects. But fundamentally lots of good things have happened in Charlotte under Foxx, and tapping him is a good sign that Obama wants to continue with progressive transportation reforms. I’m happy.
I would, however, like to offer a little tip of the cap to John Porcari who’s been serving as Deputy Secretary of Transportation since Obama’s inauguration and who has a long career of boring government jobs in his background before serving two years as Maryland’s Deputy Secretary of Transportation and then doing two different stints running the Maryland DOT. The Transportation Department has rarely had the chance to benefit from having a subject matter expert at the helm, but I think it worked well when Mary Peters had the job at the end of the Bush administration and distinguished herself as one of the bright points of the administration.