By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's choice to be transportation secretary promised on Wednesday to work with Congress to figure out how to fund U.S. transportation needs during a time of tight budgets and faced lingering Republican anger over recent air traffic controller furloughs.
"One of my goals would be to pull together a wide variety of stakeholders, both within the government and outside the government, to squarely address how we can build a consensus" on funding future infrastructure projects, Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on his nomination.
Foxx, who is seen as a rising star within the Democratic party, steered clear of recommending any new revenue sources to pay for highways, bridges and other transportation infrastructure.
He endorsed Obama's idea of a creating a government "infrastructure bank" to leverage private investment capital, but that plan has gone nowhere in Congress.
A recent study from the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the United States needs to spend $2.75 trillion to maintain and improve highways and other important infrastructure by 2020, or roughly 66 percent more than the $1.66 trillion in expected funding over that period.
For decades, Congress has relied on the federal gasoline tax to fund highway projects, but that is seen as an increasingly ineffective way of raising revenue because rising fuel efficiency means less gas is sold. The gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon and has not been raised since 1993.
Congress will confront the issue again next year when the current two-year highway bill expires.
Foxx would succeed Transportation Ray LaHood, a Republican and former member of Congress who has spent much of his adult life in Washington. LaHood is on the job until Foxx is confirmed, which is not expected until June at the earliest.
Foxx drew on the time he spent as a kid on the "number six bus" commuting to his first job at Charlotte's Discovery Place Museum to illustrate how all Americans need access to good transportation to get ahead.
"Ensuring that our transportation system is the safest in the world will be my top priority," Foxx said, adding that improving its efficiency and performance will be a second major focus.
If confirmed, Foxx would oversee a department with about 53,000 full-time employees and over $72 billion in budget authority. In addition, over 12 million Americans are employed in transportation-related jobs that could be affected by decisions Foxx makes.
He was generally well received by the committee, but got a stern warning from Senator John Thune, the top Republican on the panel, that the Transportation Department must turn over certain information about its recent decision to furlough air traffic controllers before he would support Foxx's nomination.
But Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, predicted Foxx's nomination would move swiftly, while Senator Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, said Foxx was "pretty non-controversial."
For a White House criticized by fellow Democrats for stocking a Cabinet full of old, white, male veterans of Washington, Foxx's addition may have as much to do with what he represents - an African-American mayor - than his transportation bona fides.
"Most people look at Anthony as a rising star," said Thomas Mills, a North Carolina Democratic strategist.
One of LaHood's pet projects was a campaign to reduce distracted driving, such as texting behind the wheel. Foxx promised to continue that effort, which he said LaHood has infused "into the DNA of the department."
By nominating Foxx, Obama chose a city mayor who has spent much of his time in office wrestling with transportation challenges, often ending up on the losing side.
Foxx's hometown newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, last month described Foxx in an editorial as "a transportation nominee without a hefty transportation resume."
Foxx has struggled to accomplish his own signature transit goal - building a streetcar in downtown Charlotte that would knit together low-income, minority neighborhoods to the city's downtown business district.
After more than a year's work, he so far has failed to convince the 11-member city council that the streetcar is worth funding through a tax increase.
The plan has finally begun to gain favor with the council following a new proposal by the city manager who has argued the project, no longer known as the streetcar, could be funded with local money and not dependent on tax increases, should matching funds come from the federal government.
Foxx told the panel his experience as mayor prepared him for complicated decisions he could face in administrating the Transportation Department's programs, and said his goal was to be "open and responsive" to Congress.
(Additional reporting by Samuel Jacobs; Editing by Philip Barbara)