Lemons to lemonade, streetcar hopes: Foxx reflects

Then-Mayor Anthony Foxx at the launch of Charlotte's bike share program in 2012. Photo: Mary Newsom

Should the regional transit commission take on the operating costs of the Charlotte streetcar? Former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx makes that suggestion during an interview in which he reflects on his tenure as U.S. transportation secretary.

Foxx says he’s proud of making lemonade out of lemons at the department, of pushing it to better consider how transportation policy can create – or hinder – opportunity, and of helping shepherd into law a long-term surface transportation act, the nation’s first in 10 years. Foxx became transportation secretary in July 2013.

He also says that, ambitious as he was as Charlotte mayor, he wishes he had been even more ambitious. And he suggests that the Metropolitan Transit Commission, not the City of Charlotte, could eventually take on the streetcar’s operating costs.

PlanCharlotte interviewed Foxx by phone Tuesday. Here’s what he said, lightly edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q.  You’ve talked in recent months about how transportation policies can disrupt communities, using Charlotte and its freeways as an example. How do you see transportation affecting things like economic mobility or public health, etc.?

A. There are two ways transportation affects access. The first way is the most obvious – someone who lives in an underserved area can gain access to a good school, good job, to good health care and a variety of other necessities. The second is less obvious. Transportation also functions as a catalyst for place-making. While that’s commonly accepted in the economic development arena – like when a business is relocating and needs a new road to create access – it isn’t commonly as well accepted as a method of neighborhood revitalization.

But even in Charlotte there are great examples of that type of revitalization, like the South End corridor.

Google Earth image shows how I-77, I-85 and the Brookshire Freeway isolated a triangle of northwest Charlotte. Image: Google Maps

Q.  You proposed some voluntary tools for decision-makers around that concept. Have any formal DOT policies changed to include the community-building aspect of transportation policy in formal decision-making?

A. We’ve done our best in a limited time. Think about this as carrots and sticks. The carrots we’ve used have been some pilot programs like the program of which Charlotte is a part. We challenged mayors in seven cities across the country, including Charlotte, to identify transportation projects that had a good chance of increasing opportunity.

We did a design charrette in four cities – our Every Place Counts Challenge.  We also initiated a Smart City Challenge [Columbus, Ohio, was the winner] – which called to cities across the country to reimagine transportation as more technologically advanced. As part of that challenge, we challenged the cities to think about how that technology can be accessed by people who are historically underserved or low-income. So we’ve done things to encourage the kind of thought process of being intentional about creating access.

We have also updated our Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] guidance for the first time in 40 years. We have stepped up our enforcement activity, including, for example, settling a Title VI case in Alabama, where the governor closed a number of driver’s license offices in the Black Belt of Alabama. We have ongoing actions in other parts of the country.

In Alabama, we found Title VI violation. As part of the remedy, we entered into an agreement with Alabama where they’re going to reopen many of those facilities and expand the hours.

Q. A CityLab article in December called yours “a remarkable tenure.” What are you proudest of in the time you’ve been at DOT?

A. You know, I took what could have been a period of lemons and we’ve made lemonade out if it. I think that’s probably the best way I can put it.

I walked into an agency that was subject to sequestration budgets. For six months we had a shutdown and I was having to tell people to not come in to work as a result. We’d been about 10 years since a long-term surface transportation bill.  We lobbied hard and effectively for a long-term surface bill. [President Obama on Dec. 4, 2015, signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act.] We’ve pushed the country to embrace the possibilities of technology to make our lives better and safer. 

We’ve made a strong case to communities, transportation planners and practitioners that we must think about communities, at a time when the opportunity gap continues to widen, and accept responsibility that our transportation systems in the past were aiders and abettors of those gaps – and are a potential part of the solution.

We’ve tackled things like the Metro System here in Washington, D.C., which had fallen into disrepair and refocused that agency on safety. They’re not all the way there yet, but they’re making good progress. And the Hudson Tunnel – a big hairy expensive project that nobody really wants to take responsibility for, but we’ve pushed the region to take concrete steps forward. One of the big turning points in this whole saga has been a meeting Sen. Cory Booker [New Jersey Democrat] brokered with Gov. [Chris] Christie [New Jersey Republican] in which Gov. Christie made certain commitments to move forward.  It’s partly as a result of that meeting that I can now say the project is restarted.

While I think some folks probably are skeptical about our MPO coordination rule [a rule to encourage regional transportation agencies to merge or work more closely together], we’re dealing with very imperfect federal policy here. (See “Feds want metro transportation planning less fractured. Good luck with that.”) We are required to use urbanized areas by statute. MSAs would be a much more sensible measure. But we tried in this rule to do the best job we could of pushing neighbors together to do more collaborative planning.

Hopefully it’ll work out. I was trying hard. Even if they try to opt out, they still have to go through an approval process. We’ll see how that goes.

I always have great ambitions when I do anything. When I came in I had a very clear agenda. And notwithstanding the crosswinds we confronted, we were able to get that agenda done. I’m grateful to the president for having confidence in me and in our team.

In the 20th century freeways cut through city neighborhoods all across the U.S. and severed cities from their waterfronts, like this highway in upper Manhattan beside the Harlem River. Photo: Mary Newsom

Q. To get more Charlotte-specific and North Carolina-specific: In Charlotte the transit tax did not bring in the money projected, in part due to the recession. Meanwhile, the state has reduced state funding for rail transit projects. What’s your prognosis for North Carolina and Charlotte to continue to build mass transit, especially rail transit?

A. Well, signs have been there for quite some time, that communities like Charlotte would be in that situation. I saw those signs. My belief at the time was that growth pressures were so urgent that even if the state were participating as a [funding] partner, the city and region had to figure out how to keep making progress.  We were able before I left to eke out the Blue Line Extension – and get its full funding grant agreement – and to get the streetcar started and sock away enough money to get this next extension done. But where you have a legislature that’s relatively anti-urban, it makes it difficult to have great prospects to revisit the [transit] sales tax, which I’ve always agreed is the best way to go. In the absence of that the only recourse the City Council or local government has is the ad valorem [property] tax. There may be a few other fees, but they don’t generate much.

I got a fair amount of criticism for pushing the streetcar using the property tax, but had there been another opportunity – sales tax or some other source – I would have been grateful for that. You’re kind of in a place now where you either choose to make progress and move forward, or you just wait for Superman. I don’t think Superman’s coming.

When we did the streetcar, our thought process was that we were paying for capital construction. And to my knowledge neither the MTC [Metropolitan Transit Commission, which sets policy for the Charlotte Area Transportation System] nor the City Council ever voted to remove the streetcar from the 2030 Transit Plan, although that’s the way it was pitched by some of the opponents.

My thought was always that any of the jurisdictions [in Mecklenburg County] could underwrite some portion of the capital expenses of getting the streetcar, or the Red Line [proposed commuter rail to north Mecklenburg] or the Independence line done, but that the MTC would continue taking on the operating share. That debate probably ought to be had at some point. But we didn’t have a mayor at the time [former Mayor and former Gov. Pat McCrory] who believed in the streetcar project, and I think there was undermining of it that occurred.

Q. Here’s a Monday morning quarterback question. If you knew then what you know now, what might you have done differently as Charlotte mayor?

A. You know, I had an ambitious idea of what Charlotte could become. I wanted Charlotte to be a leader, not a city that waits for someone else to try something and then copy it. In an increasingly competitive global environment, leaders are going to be the ones who win. Even as ambitious as I thought I was at the time, I don’t think I was ambitious enough. I don’t think I thought enough about our transportation challenges and how to solve them. For instance, had we gotten the $119 million to get the streetcar done in 2012, I would have gone to Washington and argued strenuously for a matching New Starts grant to get the rest of the streetcar line built. But could we have done more, or had a different mix of projects? Maybe.

In Charlotte, like many cities, a lot of the low-income housing is being pushed into the suburbs. That’s a trend we see in place like Austin, and there are many other cities struggling with this. There’s a greater lack of access to public transportation than in the center of the city. I probably would’ve been more aggressive in tackling some of the housing challenges. We were able to do some work on the chronically homeless, but for people earning 20 percent to 30 percent of Area Median Income, I wish we could have done more.

I think the city of Charlotte – its inertia and its culture makes it want to have the proof-points of something proven elsewhere before we go for it. One big thing I probably would have tried to do more is to say, “We ought to be first at X, Y, or Z.”