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A conversation with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

by Ana Lopez
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A central approach of the Biden-Harris administration is rebuilding the country from the bottom up with legislative efforts aimed at supporting all Americans, including small businesses and working families across the country. Efforts like the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are giving the US a much-needed upgrade in areas that make communities stronger and safer.

A crisis that often remains undiscussed is the high number of road deaths in our country. The National Road Safety Service reported that in 2021 42,915 people will have died in road accidents involving motor vehicles. These preventable deaths affecting families and communities have prompted the US Department of Transportation to launch a new initiative to reduce accidents. The Safe Streets and Roads for All Grant program will provide $800 million in grants for 510 projects — from redesigned roads to improved sidewalks and crosswalks — in the first round of a five-year, $5 billion program.

As Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT), Pete Buttigieg oversees these efforts to improve safety, as well as the implementation of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to improve roads, bridges, airports and public transportation. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Secretary Buttigieg about DOT’s track record and plans for the future. Below you will find our review.

Rhett Buttle: We are approaching two years of the Biden-Harris administration. What have you learned as Secretary of the DOT and what should we know about the work you have done?

Secretary Buttigieg: It’s really been an extraordinary period for us in Transportation, both in terms of opportunities and challenges that we’ve seen. We were facing one of the most severe and long-lasting disruptions to ever hit the modern U.S. transportation system, impacting everything from container shipping to airline performance, most of which was related to the pandemic. As we faced these issues, we saw the interconnectedness of our systems, and the consequences of decades of underinvestment catching up with us. But the good thing is that the causes of most of those problems are temporary and the investments that have been made are permanent. That makes this, I think, the best time in decades for transportation.

We have already been able to initiate tens of thousands of kilometers of highway repairs. We have new conversations about safety devices that we haven’t seen when it comes to public transportation, and haven’t seen for a long time when it comes to rail, airports and seaports. We have seen that there is the opportunity to work on a dual basis, maybe not in every policy area, but certainly in the field of transport. The president came in with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal and many people chuckled, but within a year it was done. And since that bill was signed, we’ve done the work to get the dollars there.

It’s extraordinary that I’m here with the President this week alone to celebrate the work being done on a 150-year-old tunnel in Maryland, and the beginning of a project in New York that will be one of the largest construction projects in the world. US will be for a very long time. Meanwhile, hundreds — if not thousands — of communities much smaller than Baltimore and New York are seeing breakthrough investments. So it’s an incredibly exciting time for this work, where we’re taking on big challenges, but also getting things done. As we begin what is only the second of five years of this funding, we really look forward to seeing more and more projects come off the page and into the construction phase.

Rhett Buttle: This week, the Department of Transportation is announcing a new safety initiative designed to reduce traffic accidents. Can you tell us more about this?

Secretary Buttigieg: America has a road fatality crisis, and the proportions are so great that I think we’ve been lulled into not noticing it. It’s almost like growing up in a country that has been at war all along. We all know people who have died in road accidents and yet issues such as gun violence do not get the attention they deserve. And more importantly, like gun violence, it is preventable. Many other developed countries have dramatically lower road death rates.

What we’re doing here is we’re putting our money where our mouth is, funding communities to make improvements that are going to save lives. We’ve committed about $800 million in this first year and it’s to go to communities that have plans at the local level, or want to develop plans to make a difference. Our national road strategy is about safer vehicles, safer drivers, safer roads, safer speeds and better standard care after an accident, so that injuries do not become fatalities.

We can make a big difference and drive that number from 40,000 road deaths a year to zero, and celebrate communities that have already gotten there, including sizeable ones. We just have to acknowledge the number of people who have lost their lives because of this. People need to understand that this is a crisis and it is preventable, and we don’t have to accept it. Now we are deploying resources to stimulate action.

Rhett Buttle: February is Black History Month. What steps is the Department of Transport taking to increase equity when it comes to distributing funds and delivering results in quality infrastructure and transportation?

Secretary Buttigieg: There are two sides of this that we focus on. What we build and how we do it. When it comes to what we’re building, we know that a lot of communities, particularly communities of color, either didn’t get a good investment or worse, the investment came and it destroyed those communities. What we’re doing now is addressing that by bringing the dollars to over-served and under-served communities; everything from transportation improvements to opportunities to reconnect via highways or railroads that separate them.

The other side is the how, and I think that’s just as important. There are so many high paying jobs on the labor side and inside the company. We work with the unions, advocacy groups and minority companies that have the best track record, usually employing people from previously excluded backgrounds. As we move the bulk of a trillion dollars through our economy and build this infrastructure, we need to make sure we do it in ways that create livelihoods and sustainable roads. If we do that, I think it will help close wealth gaps in this country that have existed for a long time.

Rhett Buttle: The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a unique opportunity. How do you deal with the private sector, especially small businesses?

Secretary Buttigieg: Well, there are some quality improvements that need to be made, which will largely have to be delivered to all of us — which is why we’re so excited about the opportunities being created, including for small businesses. For our own direct procurement, we have set a new higher target for small underprivileged businesses. We want to aim higher in the coming years. We work with the US Small Business Administration (SBA) on matchmaking and only try to shed light on the pipeline of emerging opportunities so that people don’t feel like they are stuck without opportunities because they haven’t been able to do this job for generations .

Overall, we’re talking about more than a trillion dollars in economic stimulus. To me, it’s our responsibility, not just to better leverage small businesses and businesses that haven’t had a chance in the past, but to grow the number of small businesses. How could we not with the activity we create? So we’re very focused on that. And again, we recognize that we’re not just building roads, bridges and tunnels, we’re building livelihoods and communities.

Rhett Buttle: What are your goals for the DOT looking forward to 2023? How should the private sector feel about working with the department or as a resource?

Secretary Buttigieg: Now we are really entering the delivery phase. Think about it this way: the first year of administration was spent selling this infrastructure package and working to get it approved. In the second year with that account in hand, we were setting up the machines as a department to get those dollars out the door. Now we move into year three, and this is when those dollars are used. Now is the right time for business to gear up. We will become truly dependent on the private sector in ways that are almost unprecedented. We are building at a level that will test the manufacturing capabilities of the United States, from raw materials to workforce readiness, and we cannot leave any city off the table. So we’re turning to the private sector to prepare and be ready for all these opportunities that arise. It’s not going to be easy, but we’re investing in the kind of user-friendliness as an agency and the kind of workforce configurations more broadly to meet business where it’s at, and move forward together in what’s going to be an infrastructure decade.

In addition, Secretary Buttigieg joined Rhett Buttle & San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria this morning to discuss some of these issues on Punchbowl News. You can watch the video of that conversation here.

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