(Pete Buttigieg)

Safety is Key: Buttigieg Pledges to Kick-Start Transportation Infrastructure Investment

Biden’s Transportation Secretary pick, Pete Buttigieg, has pledged to kick-start American transportation infrastructure investment. As a Mayor, Buttigieg earned national recognition for his smart streets project that created a safe environment for all road users and resulted in over $100 million in private sector investment. At the helm of the Department of Transportation (DOT), Buttigieg could expand this and other initiatives nationwide, creating a safer and smarter transportation network that gives back to American citizens and businesses.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on Buttigieg’s nomination to be Transportation Secretary on January 21. Due to the technicality that a power-sharing agreement had not yet been signed between the majority leader and the minority leader, Senator Roger Wicker chaired the hearing and said it was “quite certain” Buttigieg would be confirmed. Wicker noted that the symbolic passing of the gavel to Senator Maria Cantwell would likely take place before the next hearing and thanked her for her cooperation.

Wicker cited Buttigieg’s impressive credentials which “demonstrate his intellect and commitment to serving our nation”.

“As a former local elected official, he will bring a valuable perspective to the Department of Transportation regarding the transportation infrastructure needs and challenges of towns and cities throughout our country,” Wicker continued. “His educational background as a Harvard graduate and Rhode Scholar at Oxford University will serve our country well as we address our nation’s transportation policy priorities. I also want to thank him for his service as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve.”

The new Transportation Secretary will face myriad measures upon taking office, including implementation of COVID-19 legislation as well as infrastructure investment, promoting transportation safety, further advancing transportation innovation, including autonomous vehicles and drones, and building upon U.S. transportation networks such as restoring Amtrak service along the Gulf Coast where it was halted after Hurricane Katrina some 15 years ago.

Senator Cantwell voiced her excitement for the nomination and said that in addition to getting the transportation sector back on its feet after the pandemic hit it hard, she would also be looking to Buttigieg to improve ways to move freight around the United States and to administer aviation safety and security legislation.

At the hearing, Buttigieg, who was accompanied by his husband Chasten, started by saying that the foundation of DOT’s mission is safety and that this takes on a new meaning during the COVID-19 pandemic:

“We have to ensure that all of our transportation systems, our aviation and public transit, our railways, roads, ports, our waterways and pipelines, all of it is managed safely in this critical period as we work to defeat the virus for good. We also have a lot of work to do to improve the infrastructure in this country, a mission that will not only keep more people safe, it will grow our economy as we look to the future.

“As a mayor from the industrial midwest, I will bring a bottom-up perspective on transportation programs and funding. If confirmed, I look forward to working with our partners at the state, local, territorial, and tribal levels to find solutions to our infrastructure issues while we also prepare for the future of transportation at a time of great change.”

Buttigieg said the country’s transportation infrastructure needs “major investment” and that his role in building back better would create “millions of good-paying jobs” and “enable American small businesses, workers, families, and farmers to compete and win in the global economy”.

Alongside the challenge of the pandemic, Buttigieg will also integrate climate resilience and be mindful of this other crisis, which will still be around after COVID-19. 

“We cannot afford not to act on climate as you know and the question becomes how can we do that in a way that creates economic benefit in the near term as well as preventing catastrophe in the long run,” he told the hearing.

Senator Ted Cruz grilled Buttigieg on President Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone pipeline as part of his climate action, pointing to lost jobs. Buttigieg countered that he would look to see those workers continue to be employed in good paying union jobs, even if they might be different ones.

Domestic air travel, particularly for short flights, has often been criticized by climate specialists and one of the best alternatives is a well-functioning rail network.

At the hearing, Buttigieg described himself as “the second biggest passenger rail enthusiast in this particular administration” alluding to President Biden’s lifelong love affair with rail travel, and said he will work to see every American be able to enjoy a high standard of passenger rail service.

For shorter, everyday journeys, Buttigieg is keen to work with U.S. manufacturers to increase the rollout and take-up of electric vehicles, both personal and public transit, as well as expanding the network of charging stations. 

On aviation, Cantwell cited a report by rank-and-file Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees that revealed 49 percent of the employees responded indicating they believe safety concerns or incidents would not–were not being addressed, and that 43 percent believe the FAA delegated too much. She asked Buttigieg if he would make safety reforms at the FAA a priority.

He responded that he is committed to doing so and is ready to make personnel changes where required. “We need to make sure that engineers and the FAA are in the driver’s seat when it comes to safety. And we’ll be working right away to implement the legislation that you’ve advanced with regard to ensuring that we have every confidence in safety at the FAA.”

Buttigieg also pledged to make aviation manufacturing a priority, making sure that a workforce in the United States retained and maintained. Similarly he voiced his commitment to the Jones Act, adding that it is of the utmost importance to the maritime industry that creates hundreds of thousands of jobs, as well as the shipbuilding industry in the U.S.

For all transportation modes, Buttigieg pledged, where possible, to make federal processes more user-friendly for states or local or tribal partners. “When we find that anything is duplicative or burdensome [we] would welcome finding ways to streamline that provided of course that we are meeting the fundamental goals of those rules – safety, environmental or otherwise,” he told the hearing.

“The chance to lead this department at this historic moment is not one that I take lightly, and if confirmed, I promise to bring the same sense of duty and commitment that led me to serve my hometown as mayor and that motivated me to serve our country in the Navy Reserve,” Buttigieg concluded.

 

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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