WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama's nominee for transportation secretary — Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx — received a friendly reception from senators of both parties Wednesday laced with warnings that the nation needs to make a host of transportation improvements with no clear way to pay for them.
Foxx told a jammed Senate confirmation hearing that he will look for "partners" in local and state government to help find creative ways to finance air, rail and highway improvements. While senators pressed him for commitments on a host of issues from passenger rail improvements in the Northeast to funding air traffic control towers as small airports, the mayor from North Carolina nimbly steered away from controversy.
At several points, he asked for more time to study an issue and get back to a senator with a response.
"This is probably one of the most pleasant hearings on the Hill today," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., alluding to a House hearing going on at the same time where IRS officials were grilled by lawmakers about the agency's targeting of tea party groups.
Foxx's reception from Republicans lawmakers was unusually warm. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, predicted his nomination will be "noncontroversial." But he noted senators from both parties were well represented at the hearing because "everybody we work for" are "totally dependent on the things he is (going to be) responsible for."
Senators tempered their welcome with dire warnings that nation has a backlog of pressing transportation needs and no plan on how to pay for them. The Highway Trust Fund that pays for highway transit programs is forecast to face bankruptcy again, having only been rescued from impending bankruptcy by Congress last year. The fund is dependent on federal gas taxes, which have been raised since 1993. But the revenue raised by the taxes is declining as cars become more fuel efficient and people drive less.
The Transportation Department, like other federal agencies, is grappling government-wide, across-the-board spending cuts imposed by Congress that are scheduled to ratchet up next year absent a budget deal between Republican and Democratic leaders and the president.
"You have a huge job in front of you, massive. The challenges are many and the solutions are hard," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told the nominee.
"I want you to be a good secretary of transportation and you cannot do that without new revenue," he said, urging Foxx to "goad" Congress into finding more money for transportation.
But Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the senior Republican member of the committee, said the responsibility goes both ways, and White House should offer its own funding plan.
"I hope you will lead, the president will lead, and come up and put specific ideas on the table how to solve these specific problems," he said.
Foxx, 42, has been nominated to replace Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who is retiring. Foxx won national recognition when Charlotte hosted the Democratic National Convention last year, and he was a key surrogate in North Carolina for the president during his re-election bid last fall. He calls Obama a friend.
An attorney for a Charlotte-based transit bus company, Foxx has worked on transportation issues since joining the City Council in 2005, when the mayor was current Republican Gov. Pat McCrory. His mayoral tenure since late 2009 was marked by initial construction for a demonstration electric streetcar line and an agreement with federal transportation officials to pay for half of a light rail line going out to northeast Charlotte.
Foxx, who grew up in poverty in Charlotte, recalled riding the bus to get to his first job at a local museum when he was 12 years old.
"The Number 6 connected me to the larger world of opportunity, and I truly believe, whether it is a bus route, a road, a train, a plane or a ship, our transportation system at its best connects people to jobs and a better quality of life," Foxx he told senators.
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