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Buttigieg says he'll bring 'bottom-up' perspective to transportation policy as secretary

Riley Beggin
The Detroit News

Washington — Pete Buttigieg, President Joe Biden's nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation, told a Senate panel considering his appointment Thursday that it's crucial the country invests in strengthening transportation infrastructure nationwide.

"We have a lot of work to do to improve the infrastructure in this country — a mission that will not only keep our people safe, but will grow our economy," he said. "As we look to the future, now is the time and I believe we have a real chance to deliver for the American people."

Pete Buttigieg

The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor pitched himself as leader rooted in "the Industrial Midwest" who will "bring a bottom-up perspective" on transportation projects and funding solutions, and someone who will work with stakeholders in industries, communities and Congress to craft policy. 

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee asked Buttigieg about important projects to their state — from passenger rail to bridge infrastructure — and invited him to visit their states.

Buttigieg is expected to be among several appointees who will play a central role in helping the U.S. auto industry, the state's highway systems, and the energy grid transition to a future with fewer greenhouse gas emissions and more electric vehicles. 

Other important nominees to that plan include former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who has been tapped to lead the U.S. Energy Department; Gina McCarthy, former Environmental Protection Agency chief, who will lead climate policy from within the White House; and Michael Regan, the former head of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality appointed to lead the EPA.

Appointees to lead the Commerce and Labor departments are also likely to work closely on auto-related policy. Announcing the former mayor's nomination in mid-December, Biden called Buttigieg "a patriot and a problem-solver who speaks to the best of who we are as a nation."

"This position stands at the nexus of so many of the interlocking challenges and opportunities ahead of us," he said in a statement. "Jobs, infrastructure, equity, and climate all come together at the DOT, the site of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better. I trust Mayor Pete to lead this work with focus, decency, and a bold vision — he will bring people together to get big things done.”

If confirmed, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay person to be confirmed to a cabinet position. 

Industry analysts expect 39-year-old Buttigieg to bring energy to the department, though he has little experience working with the auto industry or with federal policy. Polly Trottenberg, Biden's nominee for deputy secretary of transportation, is thought to provide some expertise Buttigieg lacks from her years leading New York City's transportation department.

He would lead an agency with around 55,000 employees and a budget of $87 billion. But funding for the nation's infrastructure has been a challenge for decades — and has proven particularly troublesome in Michigan, home to the U.S. auto industry. 

The federal gasoline tax hasn't been increased since 1993, and the need for increased infrastructure funding has been debated for years. Biden has said he would make "historic investments" in infrastructure, manufacturing, research and development and sustainable energy. 

On the campaign trail, Biden said he would work to pass a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure, transportation and clean energy, which would take negotiation with Congress. 

Asked whether he would support increasing the federal gas tax, Buttigieg was non-committal. He said "all options need to be on the table" and that there needs to be a near-term solution to put more funding into national highways, which may include tying the tax to inflation. But he also said that the gas tax may not be the best solution in the long run as electric vehicles become more common and gas tax funds dwindle.

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, serves on the committee. He asked Buttigieg what he would do to advance the electrification of the auto industry, which is a priority for both the Biden administration and for most automakers as they race to compete with foreign automakers in China and the European Union. 

Buttigieg said "infrastructure is key." He would prioritize Biden's goal of rolling out half a million electric vehicle charging stations nationwide, which would reduce consumer anxiety that they won't be able to make it from place to place on a single charge. He said the goal is "a major lift, but one we can meet."

Biden has has said he'd support further incentives for both automakers and consumers to further adopt electric vehicles.

Peters also asked whether Buttigieg would commit to working with Congress to provide for the safe testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles, which experts say could reduce traffic deaths. "I'm enthusiastic about the opportunity," Buttigieg responded.

On his first day in office, Biden directed his administration to review federal fuel economy standards raised under former President Barack Obama and rolled back under former President Donald Trump. Buttigieg did not say specifically what the new levels should be, or whether they should be raised back to the Obama-era standard. 

Buttigieg became a rising star in Democratic politics during his run for the Democratic nomination for president over the last two years, characterized as a smart and charismatic young leader with a knack for fundraising.

He tied with Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the crucial Iowa caucuses, but dropped out of the race after a quick decline and a weak finish in the South Carolina primary — which also marked a positive turning point for Biden's campaign. 

Dropping out of the race provided the Biden campaign with more oxygen among the moderate side of the Democratic spectrum. Buttigieg threw his support behind Biden, helping to consolidate his win as the party's nominee. 

Buttigieg has faced criticism from within his party for his handling of racial issues, including disparities in policing and a lack of Black leadership under his purview in South Bend when he served as mayor. 

But during his opening statement, he noted the power of policy to reinforce racial inequality when not crafted with social justice in mind. 

"I believe good transportation policy can play no lesser role than making possible the American dream, getting people and goods to where they need to be directly and indirectly creating good paying jobs," he said. 

"But I also recognize that, at their worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities in transportation can reinforce racial and economic inequality by dividing or isolating neighborhoods in undermining government's basic role of empowering Americans to thrive."

Elaine Chao, the previous Transportation secretary under Trump, was one of several high-profile cabinet officials to resign from the administration in the wake of the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building earlier this month. 

The agency that directly regulates the auto industry, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has been without a confirmed leader since 2017. It's unclear who will be chosen for the post under the Biden administration.


Twitter: @rbeggin