March 25, 2016 - From the March, 2016 issue

US Secretary Foxx: Our Transit Systems Need Investment & Transformation

At the annual California Conversation hosted by the Los Angeles Times, US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx addressed the challenges and transformative innovations in transportation infrastructure throughout the nation, and how they will play out for Southern California. TPR presents edited excerpts of his conversation with LA Times Managing Editor for Editorial Strategy S. Mitra Kalita. Foxx suggests ways for federal government to support local transportation planning and enterprise—whether by working with industry to rewrite regulations, providing greater funding to MPOs, or altering the Highway Trust Fund to be more flexible 


Anthony Foxx

“We used to think that you use transportation to go from your doorstep to opportunity. When transit is done right, it actually brings opportunity to people’s doorsteps. ” -US Transportation Secretary Foxx

S. Mitra Kalita: Secretary Anthony Foxx, let’s begin by having you speak to the intrinsic link between transit and economic development.

Anthony Foxx: This is one of the major issues around income inequality and increasing opportunity in the 21st century. 

Our Interstate system was created in 1956, before the Voting Rights Act and before a lot of folks were at the table to make decisions. As a result, a lot of infrastructure was built in ways that were, frankly, divisive. The Century Expressway out here is an example. There are examples in North Carolina, my home, where highways cut through neighborhoods, divided them, and made it almost impossible for those areas to be economically strong.

98 percent of the money for our surface transportation system flows through state and local governments. Much of the federal dollars come from the Highway Trust Fund to the states. If the state is not particularly responsive to a given community, then you’re going to see that reflected in how the infrastructure is built. Increasingly, we’re seeing local governments figuring out that we need to have more transportation optionality for people, and doing it in a way that is inclusive. 

I believe that if we were to put more federal resources in play for the Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) of America, or for cities, that we would see a much more responsive transportation system.

S. Mitra Kalita: What advice do you have for folks who are advocating for transit dollars?

Anthony Foxx: We’re still underinvesting in infrastructure. 

Congress just passed a new five-year surface transportation bill, and it puts more money in place. But it’s still a fraction of what we need.

The states are still largely the repository of most of the federal money. Good, responsive representation on state transportation boards and strong relationships with governors are critical. 

In California, we have some of the best examples of MPO systems working well and bringing their own resources to the table, which puts them in a strong position to match federal dollars. We don’t fund 100 percent of any transit system in this country. The more you have available at the local level, the more likely it is you’ll get funded at the federal level.

S. Mitra Kalita: What, then, does the future of transportation in America look like?

Anthony Foxx: It looks crowded. Population growth is going to be just incredible: 70 million people by 2045, all competing for the same space with the rest of us. In this region of the country, you’re going to have a 61-percent increase in population. The region is going to hold close to 40 million people. Roads that are crowded today are going to be more crowded. It’s already got the most heavily trafficked roads in the nation and congestion will intensify because we’re also expecting 80 percent more freight volume to come across the system around here. 

We need much more investment, and it needs to be more multimodal in nature so that it doesn’t just focus on roads. The more lanes you get, the more traffic you get. But certain modalities can alleviate some of that traffic, including intercity passenger rail, good transit systems, bike/ped, etc. 

We’ve got to focus on giving more power to our megaregions, which are the loci of a lot of economic activity. 

The other aspect of transportation is land use. If you build a sprawling area, you’re going to, by definition, create more transportation needs, whereas if you build more densely and think about where the transportation assets are on the front end, you can reduce some of the load on the system.

The biggest challenge we have in looking at the next 30-40 years is our antiquated transportation funding system. You put 18.4 cents for every gallon of gas you buy into the federal Highway Trust Fund. We’ve predetermined over generations that 80 cents on every dollar in the fund should go to roads. If we took the binders off of the Highway Trust Fund and allowed it to be used more flexibly, states and local communities could have the potential to think more openly about solving their mobility challenges. The president and I are working toward that with our latest budget proposal, which starts to put more money into multimodal investments. Right now you’re almost predetermined to build roads.

Federal dollars go into transportation in a way that we wouldn’t expect education dollars, for example, to go into education: We deploy huge sums of money, and we harbor the expectation that those who are deploying that money at the state and local levels will do it efficiently and effectively. While federal law gives states the authority to determine how to use the federal-aid funds, we in the federal government play an active role in making sure states comply with federal requirements.

As we continue to have limited budgets and underinvestment, the argument I’m starting to make more and more is that we should think carefully about how we’re using those dollars, rather than spending it all on roads, to make sure we’re getting the most mobility out of the dollars we spend.

S. Mitra Kalita: Could you elaborate on your view of the role driverless cars will play in the future?

Anthony Foxx: My view of driverless cars is that they’re coming. The US government can either be in the engine room, so to speak, designing the regulatory structure, or we can take a more reactive position, which is probably our default. The advantage of being more proactive is that we can not only educate ourselves, but also work with industry to set standards in real time as the technology is being developed.

We see safety benefits from autonomous and connected cars. Some studies suggest an 80-percent reduction in accidents. Most accidents today have to do with human error. If you eliminate that factor, or mitigate it, hopefully we’ll see better safety. 

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How do we get there? We want to make sure that when you buy something in this country, it is safe. Our National Highway Traffic Administration has a set of vehicle standards that every vehicle has to meet. We went to industry and said, “Tell us where our standards pose a challenge for driverless vehicles.” 

For instance, BMW said, “We want a self-parking car.” Our standards presuppose that a human foot is touching the brake pedal, and so that presents a direct challenge. We’ve given an interpretation that provides more flexibility, so that BMW can now bring self-parking cars to the marketplace. 

The president has put a $4 billion request in his budget for more research and effort around autonomous vehicles. We’ve pledged to work with the states over the next several months to develop best practices and guidance that we hope states across the country will adopt.

Basically, the US government establishes standards for the vehicle and the states establish standards for driver qualifications. There are still places where the states have more of the definitional work to do. We’ve promised to put out some guidance by the summer that will hopefully move the ball along.

S. Mitra Kalita: Although you’ve been in LA only for the weekend, please share your current take as US Transportation Secretary on our metropolis. What are some of the things you see, and what do you predict will evolve?

Anthony Foxx: When I was growing up, LA was the poster child for smog, congestion, and long travel times. I see a community that is now trying to cut through that reputation and to solve some of these challenges. In a lot of ways, LA is going to be a leading indicator for the rest of the country. The same pressures are coming to Charlotte and Atlanta. As you build a multimodal transportation network that starts to relieve and mitigate traffic, and as you stay ahead of the curve in integrating technology in transportation (which I see happening here with SpaceX and Hyperloop), I think the future’s very bright. You’ve got so much thought leadership here, both in government and in the private sector, that I feel very good about where LA is headed.

Shawn Landres: Could you speak to the nexus of transit investment and access to affordable housing?

Anthony Foxx: We used to think that you use transportation to go from your doorstep to opportunity. When transit is done right, it actually brings opportunity to people’s doorsteps. 

But if you haven’t developed a good land-use plan when you’re doing infill transit, and you haven’t thought about the growth pressures that come with that transit investment, values can go up and the folks who have been there for years can get pushed out. 

That’s why communities with inclusionary zoning ordinances and those making effective use of affordable-housing incentives along transit lines have a better chance of creating the sustainability that’s necessary over the long term. 

As our cities grow in this country, we have a growing problem of low-income suburbs. People are moving out because of financial pressure or because they feel they’re moving closer to a job. But they’re also moving away from public transportation. We could find ourselves, in a generation, having very wealthy central cities, and very poor suburban rings. That would be a big challenge for us from a transportation standpoint, as well as an overall opportunity standpoint.

I don’t know that anybody has got this licked. It’s particularly challenging when a Metro authority is putting in the transit, and then a bunch of local communities strung along that asset have to make their own individual zoning decisions. It’s very hard to get a strong symmetry of policy when you’ve got a number of jurisdictions trying to figure it out. The MPO system, I believe, was designed to help us solve some of this.

Back in the 1990s, the idea was to create regional boards that would help advise the state on transportation priorities. In California, you have actually dedicated resources to some, so they can build projects on a regional basis. Where I’m from, it hasn’t worked quite as well. We had 17 counties of economic influence and five MPOs within that region, so we really didn’t have a regional conversation.

Fernando Cazares: In California, we’re testing SB 375: Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act, which sets greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for those metropolitan planning organizations. What are the prospects of doing that at a national level?

Anthony Foxx: I don’t think we should tell MPOs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions if we don’t give the MPOs the resources to actually do it. We say to the states: Spend the money how you want; maybe give a little bit to local communities. And then we say to the MPOs: Fix our emission problems. MPOs should focus on that, but we have never given the MPOs a real bundle of resources to actually do it.

Attention needs to be paid to that. In the president’s budget, we begin putting real investments on the table for MPOs so that they’re not only being graded by emissions in their area, but they also actually have resources to spend to address them.

Marco Anderson: Could you address coordination between NHTSA, which deals a lot with vehicle safety, and the USDOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Federal Transit Administration, which deal with the systems? 

Anthony Foxx: We’ve stacked our agency along different modes—the rail system, the aviation system, the automobile system, and transit systems—as they’ve come online. We’ve done a good job. Over the last 50 years, there’s no question that the systems have been safer and better because of the way we’re structured. 

But how you structure an agency when a system is being built may be different from how you set it up once it’s matured, and you’re trying to manage and integrate systems so that they’re moving more in sync with each other. Maybe a time will come when there won’t be an FRA, FTA, NHTSA, and Federal Highway Administration. Maybe there’ll be a Surface Transportation Administration that will look at all those things together. That’s a far-out idea. But as we’ve gone through our work in our “Beyond Traffic” study, it’s become clear that one of the big challenges for 21st-century America is system integration. How do the highways, the railways, the transit systems, and the bike and ped paths all fit together? We’ve got a mature system. Now, can we make all the parts punch above their own individual weight? 

That’s what you’re asking here in Los Angeles, and that’s what every community in the country is asking. 

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© 2017 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.