The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, could soon lead the beleaguered Department of Transportation as it faces challenges from a changing climate and a still-raging pandemic.
WASHINGTON (CN) — With the congressional stamp of approval imminent, Pete Buttigieg could soon oversee the new administration’s ambitious $1.9 trillion infrastructure plan as transportation secretary.
Buttigieg and Biden were once opponents in last year’s Democratic primary, but Buttigieg’s polish and experience as the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, ultimately paved his path to a Cabinet role for the 39-year-old former U.S. Naval Reserve intelligence officer.
Appearing Thursday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Buttigieg would be the youngest transportation secretary ever to serve and he would also be the first openly gay Cabinet member confirmed by the U.S. Senate. During Thursday’s proceedings, Buttigieg’s husband, Chasten, sat behind him.
Laid out before the would-be transportation secretary is a tangled web of crises as interconnected as the nation’s crumbling highway system, which, incidentally, will see its funding expire in September.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has poured salt on those existing national transportation wounds. It has blown a hole in ridership levels and prompted additional delays to already long-awaited maintenance requests. All the while, threats to transit worker health persist as Covid-19 infection rates rise and the nation’s vaccine distribution mostly falters.
“Safety is the foundation of the department’s mission and that takes on new meaning amid this pandemic,” Buttigieg testified Thursday. “All of our transportation systems; aviation, public transit, railways, roads, ports, pipelines — all of it must be managed safely in this critical period as we work to defeat the virus for good.”
Buttigieg was critical of what he called the “misguided” transportation policies governing the nation’s skyways, highways and railways under former President Donald Trump and former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the wife of the newly demoted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Neglect and poor planning only reinforced existing “racial and economic” inequalities, Buttigieg said.
Biden has proposed to infuse the Transportation division with billions earmarked for retrofitting programs and maintenance initiatives. He is expected to fully lay out the administration’s formal infrastructure proposal in February, which would put Buttigieg in the hot seat right away if confirmed.
Such initiatives dovetail with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s recent announcement that it is making infrastructure revitalization a chief legislative goal for 2021. A powerful lobby on Capitol Hill, the chamber launched a campaign to get Congress motivated in investing or fast-tracking infrastructure projects no later than the Fourth of July.
Generally speaking, bridge repair and road renewal is popular stuff among the public and among lawmakers, but implementation often comes screeching to a halt when dollars and cents must finally be allocated. Biden has floated infusing some $50 billion into road repairs but he will need a deft hand at the wheel of the department to push his agenda anywhere fast.
The $1.9 trillion proposal already is premised on a 10-year spending schedule, posing an inherent conundrum since infrastructure only degrades with time and the effects of climate change, like more intense storms or flooding.
“There are certain challenges funding different modes of transportation,” Buttigieg acknowledged, noting the nation’s highway trust fund consistently has more going out than coming in. “We need to develop more sustainable and predictable means of delivering that kind of funding.”
Sustainability and clean energy has been billed as a priority for the Biden administration, and the new edge that Democrats have in both the Senate and House may help.
Buttigieg vowed to study Trump’s rollbacks under Secretary Chao of basic fuel economy standards that would keep carbon emissions in check. Though his transportation experience is limited, Buttigieg said he is committed to getting hands-on with regional and state partners and relying on his experience to push ahead.
In South Bend, Buttigieg deployed a “Smart Streets” initiative that made the community more pedestrian and cyclist friendly and more green. It generated about $100 million in cash for South Bend, but it also raised many local questions about the gentrification that followed.
Buttigieg could be ushered in as secretary as soon as next week given the wide bipartisan support he enjoys. Senator Amy Klobuchar, who ran against Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic primaries, offered her full support of the Biden nominee Thursday.
“I know you well, and I can attest to all my colleagues what a forward-thinking and thoughtful secretary you would truly be in a very important area for all of us and our nation,” she said.