How does Anthony Foxx’s Transportation Experience Compare to Past USDOT Secretaries?

Anthony Foxx, President Obama, Secretary LaHood. Image - news.yahoo.com

Anthony Foxx, President Obama, Secretary LaHood. Image – news.yahoo.com

How does USDOT Secretary nominee Anthony Foxx’s relative lack of transportation experience compare to former Secretaries? Does previous experience matter, really?

Anthony Foxx hasn’t engineered a road, led a State DOT, transit agency or a construction company. As a City Council member, he chaired the Transportation Committee. As Mayor, he engaged in several high profile, big projects like “expanding the city’s LYNX streetcar to UNC-Charlotte, creating the Charlotte Regional Intermodal Facility that transfers cargo between trucks and trains, and building a new runway at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport,” according to Politico.  And he certainly got exposed to mobility and security issues while his City hosted the national Democratic convention.

That doesn’t add up to significant experience with transportation issues. But does this mean he can’t lead USDOT? Of course not.

How does Foxx’s experience stack up against prior Secretary nominees? We read the Biographical Sketches of the last ten USDOT Secretaries to find out.

Our very unscientific research indicates only half of the previous ten USDOT secretaries (going back to 1981) had significant transportation experience prior to leading USDOT.

Secretaries with NO incoming significant experience with transportation issues (including USDOT service period and position when nominated):

  • Ray LaHood, January 23, 2009 to 2013, former Congressman
  • Fredrico Pena, Secretary from January 21, 1993 to February 14, 1997, former Mayor of Denver
  • Andrew Card, February 24, 1992 to January 20, 1993, senior White House aide
  • Elizabeth Dole, February 7, 1983 to September 30, 1987, senior White House aide
  • Drew Lewis, Jr., January 23, 1981 to February 1, 1983, business leader

All had significant political experience and connections.

Secretaries WITH incoming significant experience with transportation issues (including USDOT service period and position when nominated):

  • Mary Peters, October 17, 2006 to 2009, FHWA Administrator, former Arizona DOT Director
  • Norm Mineta, January 25, 2001 to July 7, 2006, longtime member of House Transportation Committee, former member of National Civil Aviation Review Commission
  • Rodney Slater, February 14, 1997 to January 20, 2001, FHWA Administrator, former member of Arkansas Highway Commission
  • Samuel K. Skinner*, February 6, 1989-December 13, 1991, Attorney
  • James H. Burnley, December 3, 1987-January 30, 1989, Deputy U.S. Secretary of Transportation

*One could debate the inclusion here of Skinner; we’re counting as “significant” Skinner’s reign as Chair of the Regional Transportation Authority of northeastern Illinois, the nation’s second largest mass transportation district.

Did experience make a difference? It’s a debate that could go well into the evening. All Secretaries, just like any Cabinet Secretary, have accomplishments and disappointments. And much of their fate is tied to the level of their President’s advocacy and engagement, Congress, politics. It’s also tied to the calendar (whether or not a transportation bill was to expire on their watch) and how they handled events beyond their control (e.g., 9/11, major hurricanes and earthquakes, Valdez oil spill).

Our view: Foxx is likely to do just fine. For one thing, he has a number of highly capable deputies such as Deputy Secretary John Porcari, Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy Polly Trottenberg, and FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. They know the issues, and they know DC politics. Let’s hope Foxx wants to keep them and that they want to stay. For another, previous Secretaries have been successful regardless of coming into the job with significant or insignificant transportation experience. Of course that also depends on how you would define success.

The Foxx era is more likely to be defined by the Obama-Republican Congress dynamic than anything else. It’s a dynamic that often stymied even former Republican Congressman Ray LaHood.

Visit USDOT’s Biographical Sketches of USDOT Secretaries for more information about these and other Secretaries.