What We Know About Pete Buttigieg’s Transportation Record

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With the pandemic’s financial fallout threatening the futures of local governments and transportation systems, the next U.S. Secretary of Transportation has a bigger-than-usual job to do. Yet city officials and transportation leaders are hopeful for meaningful reform after President-elect Joe Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend and Democratic primary candidate. 

“So happy a fellow Mayor will be running @USDOT. Mayors understand where the rubber hits the road,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a congratulatory tweet to Buttigieg. “I know you will help us & cities across America as we overcome COVID & recover.” The U.S. Conference of Mayorsexpressed a similar sentiment in a statement, adding, “We are confident that his leadership at this moment will help bring the voices of local leaders to the table.”

With roads and transit systems in disrepair, an urgent need to cut transportation emissions, and a call to correct racial injustices shaped by federal highways, Buttigieg’s background running a small American city did not make him an obvious fit to lead U.S. transportation policy and rule-making. Yet supporters say a robust infrastructure plan that he put forward as a presidential candidate, as well as forward-minded changes he made in his time as executive of South Bend, point to the vision and experience he might bring to the cabinet role. Criticisms that dogged Buttigieg on the campaign trail about his record on racial justice will be relevant in the post, too.

Buttigieg rose to national prominence in a dark-horse bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, which he dropped in March after placing fourth in the South Carolina primary. He quickly endorsed Biden and channeled his energies towards supporting the Democratic ticket, coaching Vice President-elect Kamala Harris ahead of the vice presidential debate and rallying get-out-the-vote events.

Bidenofficially announced Buttigieg’s nomination in a press conference on Wednesday, highlighting the position as strategically important for fulfilling his campaign promise to lead America out of the pandemic into an era of economic stability, equality and preparedness for climate change. “Pete’s going to help build back better with jobs and hope, with vision and execution,” Biden said. “We selected Pete for transportation because the department is at the intersection of some of our most ambitious plans.”

Buttigieg accepted the nomination by calling Biden’s victory a “mandate” to restore the country’s infrastructure and bring it into the 21st century. “Americans shouldn’t settle for less than our peers in the developed world when it comes to our roads and bridges, railways, and transit systems,” he said. “The U.S. should lead the way and in this administration, we will.” 

If confirmed by the Senate, Buttigieg would become history’s first openly gay member of the cabinet, and at 38 years old, one of the youngest.

While that confirmation remains uncertain, early signs are promising. Senator Todd Young, a Republican from Buttigieg’s home state who sits on the Commerce Committee that will vet his nomination, expressed support. “As a former city leader here in Indiana, Pete understands how critical infrastructure is to growth and opportunity. It will be good to have a Hoosier serving in this capacity,” Young said in an emailed statement. 

During his presidential campaign, Buttigieg outlined a $1 trillion infrastructure plan with notably city-centric transportation goals. With a promise to prioritize connecting people with jobs and services and to battle climate change, it proposed to double funding for transit-oriented federal grants, boost investments in bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure, and focus highway construction funds on maintenance rather than expansion. It outlined a national “Vision Zero” strategy to eliminate traffic fatalities by funding road projects that prioritize safety, and withholding it from those that don’t. 

Buttigieg also put forward a fix for the insolvent Highway Trust Fund by digitally tracking and taxing drivers for vehicle-miles traveled, using “appropriate privacy protections” and reduced rates for low-income drivers. As vehicles become more fuel-efficient, policy experts believe a “VMT fee” would increase tax revenue if it replaced the gas tax. 

The complete plan received one of the highest scores among presidential contenders from Transportation For America, a policy think tank, in February. “He saw the need for transportation to build great communities for everyone,” not just speed “people in vehicles through them,”tweeted Transportation for America director Beth Osborne, recalling a meeting with Buttigieg while he was mayor.  

Buttigieg campaigned on other issues that could be relevant to the cabinet job, which includes overseeing autonomous vehicle regulation. He emphasized future-of-work issues likepreparing for job loss due to robots and artificial intelligence, and as a mayor of a onetime manufacturing hub, chaired the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ task force on automation.

A spokesperson for the Transport Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, said its leaders looked forward to working with Buttigieg across the trucking, transit, aviation and rail sectors as well as on automation issues. 

“Pete Buttigieg is committed to transformational infrastructure investment that creates good jobs and he is ready to lead the fight for transportation workers,” she said. 

Buttigieg shaped some of his legacy in South Bend by bringing in new technologies and data-driven efficiencies, drawing from his time as a McKinsey consultant. The city wasamong the first in the U.S. to sign a contract with LimeBike, an early player in the dockless bike industry. He oversaw the implementation of a tool that allowed garbage trucks to pick up bins on their own — offering the out-of-work pickers new jobs within the city — and led the creation of a citywide performance dashboard calledSBStat. 

Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, praised the former mayor’s approach as demonstrating “support for a sorely-needed fresh approach to mobility.” 

“Buttigieg will bring a breath of fresh air to U.S. transportation policy, which has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s,” Kisnersaid in a statement. 

Among Buttigieg’s other accomplishments as mayor of South Bend was a $21 million traffic-calming project known as “Smart Streets,” which eliminated one-way streets, widened sidewalks, reconfigured streetlights, built bike paths and narrowed traffic lanes around downtown. It was credited with helping to advance the area’s economic revitalization. He also advocated for the South Shore railroad from Chicago to stop in downtown South Bend, rather than at the airport, and for it to be double-tracked to increase trip speeds and capacity.

Buttigieg was not the only mayor in the running for transportation secretary, with L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel also vying for the role. Other frontrunners, including Polly Trottenberg, the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, and John Porcari, who served as deputy secretary of transportation under Obama, had far more subject expertise.

Yet Buttigieg seems to grasp the key infrastructure issues the country faces, said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Between congestion, climate change and accessibility barriers, “so many of our transportation challenges are happening in cities and small towns and satellite communities,” he said. “At the same time, we are seeing the most innovation happening at the local level. To have someone who’s been at the front lines of that, and who has the bonafides to prove it, there’s a lot to like.”

Not everyone was so pleased. Buttigieg’s presidential bid fizzled as he struggled to connect with voters of color and younger voters. Jordan Giger, a Black Lives Matter activist in South Bend who was one of Buttigieg’s fiercest critics on police reform, housing and social justice during his presidential campaign, pointed to the 2017 death of an 11-year-old boy in a Smart Street intersection where the traffic light configuration had been changed, and criticized Buttigieg’s handling of it. “There was no empathy,” he said, referring to Buttigieg’s description of how the boy had “darted” into traffic. Giger also pointed out that during Buttigieg’s administration, less than 1% of construction contracts went to minority-owned businesses.

“When you have someone who has a huge blind spot to economic inclusion for minority businesses — especially while we’re facing this huge crisis of economic inequality — now leading this large federal agency, that’s cause for concern,” Giger said. 

Buttigieg has previously acknowledged that his record on race in South Bend was “mixed.” In his acceptance speech on Wednesday, he described the role of Transportation Secretary as “equitably serving all Americans while continuing to ensure the safety of travelers and travel-workers alike.” 

Henry Davis, Jr., a South Bend council member who ran against Buttigieg in a 2015 mayoral primary, said he hoped that his former competitor would learn from his missteps. “We long for leadership that’s more inclusive, that’s more understanding, that’s intentional about putting Black people back to work in America,” he said. 

Other transportation advocates who focus on racial justice conveyed cautious optimism about Buttigieg’s capacity to lead, and that he would choose deputies and undersecretaries with experience and perspective that he might lack. 

“Being a member of the administration’s cabinet is truly a privilege. And I hope that privilege and power is acknowledged and used to make important transportation funding and policy decisions that are informed by those communities who too often suffer the burdens of those decisions rather than the benefits,” said Tamika Butler, a transportation consultant. “I hope the team Mayor Pete surrounds himself with is reflective of the rich and diverse makeup of this country.”

— With assistance by Courtney Rozen

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