By Roberta Rampton and Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For the past four years, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has rarely passed up the chance to chide American drivers for using mobile phones and other devices while driving, often speaking directly to drivers in radio ads during the morning commute.
The loquacious LaHood used the White House announcement ceremony on Monday for his replacement as transportation secretary to make one last plea for safer driving - and to say his goodbyes to politics.
On Monday, President Barack Obama nominated Anthony Foxx to replace LaHood, giving the young African-American mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina, a chance at his first federal role, while saying a fond farewell to his friend LaHood, a veteran of Illinois and Washington politics.
After 35 years in public service, including 14 as an Illinois congressman and more than four as transportation secretary, the plain-speaking moderate Republican said he plans to retire and spend time with his family.
He urged Foxx, who must be confirmed for the job by the Senate, to press on with the campaign against texting while driving.
"We're right at the starting gate on this. Distracted driving is an epidemic," LaHood said.
Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia now have laws banning texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
"Over the past four years, thanks to Ray's leadership, we've built or improved more than 350,000 miles of road - enough to circle the world more than 14 times," Obama said. "We've upgraded more than 6,000 miles of rail - enough to go coast to coast and back. We've repaired or replaced more than 20,000 bridges, and helped put tens of thousands of construction workers back on the job."
While LaHood spoke optimistically about the prospects for high-speed rail in the United States, any widespread development of that transportation method is far in the future as Americans continue their reliance on automobiles for long-distance travel.
Obama said in nominating Foxx that he helped improve Charlotte's transportation system with streetcar and light rail as well as airport improvements.
Foxx, who turns 42 on Tuesday, would make Obama's Cabinet more diverse, something the president's supporters have urged.
He said he hoped to follow in LaHood's bipartisan footsteps.
"There is no such thing as a Democratic or Republican road, bridge, port, airfield or rail system," Foxx said. "We must work together across party lines to enhance this nation's infrastructure."
Charlotte was the host city for the 2012 Democratic Party convention that launched Obama on a path to re-election, which probably helped Foxx get the job, said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan think tank.
"They saw that he was able to oversee a pretty important event from their perspective and oversee it with great success," Schank said.
The two biggest challenges facing Foxx will be finding the revenues to pay for huge infrastructure needs and modernizing the air traffic control system, Schank said in an interview.
Because of his experience as mayor, Foxx may choose to work closely with cities - but his relative inexperience working in federal policy may be a sign that the White House will play a big role in transportation issues, Schank said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Bill Trott)