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Transportation Secretary Nominee Ducks Highway Financing Questions

Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx sidestepped persistent questioning Wednesday about how to fill revenue shortfalls in the Highway Trust Fund, telling senators weighing his confirmation as Transportation secretary that he would “bring together a wide variety of stakeholders”

“We need to figure that question out,” Foxx said, in testimony before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “I don’t want to pre-reach the result.”

Foxx has been nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Ray LaHood. He seemed determined to avoid the trouble that LaHood got into early in his tenure, earning a public White House rebuke for endorsing consideration of a new vehicle mileage tax.

Fixing the Highway Trust Fund, which is projected to run dry in fiscal 2015 because of slumping motor fuels tax receipts, will be just one of the major challenges facing Foxx if he wins confirmation. Foxx faced mostly polite questioning by senators in his official Capitol Hill debut and so far no opposition to his confirmation has emerged.

In his testimony, Foxx embraced the White House’s main transportation and infrastructure objectives. He spoke about working with Amtrak to boost passenger rail service in Charlotte, N.C., endorsed Obama’s proposal to create an infrastructure bank and touted the competitive grant program known as TIGER. Foxx said TIGER helped Charlotte build out its first light rail system.

“We have good experience with TIGER,” Foxx said. The program, which is slated to award almost $474 million in fiscal 2013, is popular with many state and local transportation departments, though some congressional Republicans have chafed at its size and at the general policy of ceding spending decisions to the executive branch.

Likewise, Foxx endorsed the proposed infrastructure bank, which has been stalled by Republican opposition, though he stressed that it would not solve the shortfalls in highway funding. The current surface transportation authorization (PL 112-141) expires next fall.

Foxx faced questions from John Thune of South Dakota, the panel’s ranking Republican, about handling the budget cuts mandated by the sequester. Earlier this year, the Federal Aviation Administration infuriated lawmakers by furloughing air traffic controllers and threatening to shut down 149 privately managed control towers.

Eventually, Congress enacted legislation (PL 113-9) that ended the furloughs and avoided the shutdowns by allowing the Transportation Department to transfer up to $253 million in unspent airport improvement grant funds, though Republicans insisted the department had the authority to adjust its spending without the new law.

Foxx said he has experience making do with less, noting that in his first year as mayor, the recession caused tax revenue to fall by $200 million.

“We had to work within our resources, Foxx said, noting that he didn’t ask to raise taxes to cover the shortfall.

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