Whether it’s potholes in your city’s streets, frustrating delays with private airlines, or antiquated infrastructure in both rural and urban communities, all Americans have likely experienced the downfalls of the country's transportation and infrastructure systems.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg — and the Department of Transportation (DOT) — have spent the last two-and-a-half years working to remedy these downfalls and help communities across the country move more smoothly. Because, no matter where you land on the political spectrum, you still need to get around.
In fact, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, enacted in 2021, is the largest federal investment in public transportation in American history, authorizing up to $108 billion to be used for public transportation.
This funding has been foundational to the department’s work in recent years — and reminds us that the seemingly “boring” challenges in public life can be met with some of the most innovative, sustainable, and equitable solutions.
As part of that edition, Secretary Buttigieg sat down with us to talk about the importance of mobility, the future of transit, and how delivering for communities leads to a stronger democracy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
In Conversation with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg
Kamrin Baker, Good Good Good: Transportation is key to a community’s ability to thrive. Can you speak a little bit to how equitable and sustainable transit makes a positive impact? Essentially, why should we care about transit?
Sec. Buttigieg: Mobility is one of those things that you don’t always think about, especially when it’s working well. But it absolutely drives our opportunities in life. The ability to get to work, school, to get to loved ones, to get to where you need to be — really makes or breaks your day, and can make or break how your life goes in the long term, as well.
In the public sector, we have a responsibility to set people up for success by creating the mobility options that allow people to live a life of their choosing. The better mobility we can provide, the more barriers we’re tearing down.
It hasn’t always been equitable and sustainable in the past. We have a chance to really change that, especially because we have levels of funding that have not been available, certainly in my lifetime, thanks to the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
We’re deploying that funding across the country to take care of the basics: to make sure transportation is safer, to make sure that it’s actually connecting people the way it’s supposed to, and to learn from mistakes in the past so that we do a better job of reaching everybody — so that we have fewer so-called “transit deserts” where you can’t get access to the mobility you need.
And, of course, to do it on cleaner, greener terms than would have happened certainly a half-century ago when the interstate highway system was being built, for example.
Kamrin: I was just about to touch on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which is obviously a huge milestone for the DOT and for the nation as a whole. If someone maybe hasn’t been paying attention to it or isn’t so sure what it’s all about, could you give me the elevator pitch on what this law has allowed you to do?
Sec. Buttigieg: Well, it’s the biggest transformation to our roads and bridges, our trains and transit, our ports and airports, in more than a half-century.
One of the reasons it passed with bipartisan support — which doesn’t happen often in today’s Washington — is that the need exists in every part of the country: red, blue, and purple.
This was something President Biden promised when he was running for President. It’s something that previous presidents have tried to do and couldn’t get over the hump. And it’s something that, now that we’ve got the funding, we’re very intentional about putting to work.
We spent most of our first year around here trying to get that bill passed. And then we got it passed. President Biden signed it in November of our first year here.
And then last year, our second year, was really about getting the programs up and running. It created 46 new programs in the Department of Transportation alone — everything from a program to eliminate railroad crossings — which can be a huge headache and a safety issue, especially in rural communities — to a program that’s going to help us build more resilient infrastructure that is better equipped to survive fires, floods, and earthquakes and everything in between.
We spent a lot of last year designing those programs. Now, if year one was the bill passing, and year two was the programs launching, years three and four are really about the money moving and the dirt flying.
This is when we actually get to the rewarding part, which is to identify the communities that are going to benefit and see the projects actually begin to take shape.
Kamrin: I know there are so many grants coming out of your office all the time to help different communities. Could you share a few components or projects that you are really excited about?
Sec. Buttigieg: One of the first projects we were able to announce was in Perry County, Indiana, where they have a port that’s really a floating crane. It gets crude iron off of the barges that come up the Ohio River so that they can go up to a foundry that is responsible for 1,000 jobs in a town of 7,000 people.
When the water is too high or too low, the crane doesn’t operate very efficiently. So, we funded them to move that crane on the land. That’s a very simple and specific and important example of how a community can be much better off when we put this funding to work.
In Detroit, we’re helping to take I-375, which was laid like a gash through a largely Black neighborhood in Detroit a couple of generations ago, and elevate it, turn it into a boulevard that’s going to better handle the traffic. And now it’s a connection instead of a division in the community.
I was just in North Dakota, where there’s a railroad crossing that the community has been trying to get rid of since 1991 because slowed and stopped trains blocked emergency vehicles and cars from being able to get to and from the area around the university. And we’re finally able to do it through the railroad crossing elimination funding that’s here.
There’s really something for everybody in this funding, and that’s what’s exciting is to get out to the communities where we’re helping.
In the West, we’re doing wildlife crossings — not just to benefit the wildlife, but to save human lives — because there are fatalities and injuries from collisions.
And then it goes all the way through to the bread-and-butter work that you do hear a lot about, like fixing up airport terminals or improving a streetscape in a big city or a small town.
Kamrin: We’re talking to the guy at the top here, but I know a lot of our readers care deeply about what’s going on in their own backyards, on their roads, on their highways.
If someone cares a lot about mobility in their community, what can they do to take action to help improve public transportation and infrastructure on that grassroots level?
Sec. Buttigieg: We choose a lot of programs that come in through competitive processes here at the department, but actually, the majority of the funding is going to states and localities, and the decisions are being made closer to home.
People who care about transit and transportation should feel very empowered right now and need to know that it might be your state legislators or even your city councils that will be making some of the most important decisions about how this money will be used. You don’t have to come all the way to Washington to knock on my door in order to have a role in how this funding gets deployed.
[Funding dollars] find their way into communities based on decisions that are made by metropolitan planning organizations, where your council member or county commissioner might be on that board. Or again, in state legislatures, where often, regular citizens can testify at committee hearings.
It’s really important to realize you might have more of a voice than you think in how these dollars get used.
Kamrin: That’s always really empowering to remember our place as citizens, especially in local government. You started off as a mayor, so you know what that looks like! Such a great point.
I know a lot of your work has also been focused on modernizing transit and infrastructure. Can you speak a little bit to some of those projects and initiatives? How are we meeting the moment when it comes to transit?
Sec. Buttigieg: We are in a moment that I think will be very transformational for transportation — probably some of the biggest changes since the middle of the last century in terms of what we should expect from the 2020s.
That’s everything from the electrification of vehicles — which is obviously the biggest transition to cars since they were invented — to things like smart signaling, which can save a lot of time and a lot of emissions by moving vehicles more efficiently through communities.
Better, safety technologies that we didn’t really have access to before. The potential for automated driving to make cars safer in the long run, but advanced driver assistance to make cars safer in the short run.
As a matter of fact, we just put out a rule on automatic emergency braking, requiring that it become part of a standard for cars instead of just a bell and whistle that you had to pay extra to get — because we want everybody to be protected by that.
We’re working with communities that are trying to use technology in new ways to help move people around better. And certainly, we’re seeing transit get very creative. For example, taking some of the same technology and approach that goes into Uber and Lyft and applying that in the transit context so more people can get rides on demand.
Kamrin: We’ve been talking about all the really good stuff, and that doesn’t negate the fact that there have been a lot of challenges for the DOT. Even in the last six months, you know, airline issues, the East Palestine trail derailment — What work is being done, and what do you hope is done, to improve private transit and make it safer for people and the planet?
Sec. Buttigieg: We’re determined to make sure that freight railroads are safer than we found them. And we’re well on our way to that, with a number of initiatives that include work to require that there be at least two people on board a train. (Believe it or not, that’s not guaranteed right now, even though it sounds very common sense.)
There’s also a new rule we’re announcing on hazardous materials, helping first responders better prepare by requiring railroads to notify communities about what’s coming through when there’s an incident.
We got to work on day one with many of these initiatives. I think the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine really woke up Americans to how often derailments happen and how severe they can be.
Even if there are no fatalities, the environmental consequences, as the people of East Palestine have been living through, can be incredibly serious. And that’s why we need to continually raise the bar on safety.
When it comes to airlines, there have been a lot of headaches for sure. But also here, too, I think we have a lot to show for our work. In fact, I would argue we’re in the middle of the biggest expansion of passenger rights in decades.
And what that means is compared to even one year ago, you can go to flightrights.gov and get a lot of good information and see what’s changed. More airlines are now guaranteeing things like taking care of your ground expenses, hotels, meals, taxes, and rebooking if you get stuck. That was something we really pushed to get.
And we’re working right now on a rule that would require compensation in the case of extreme delays — not just getting a refund or a rebooking — but cash, or some real compensation, for the time that you’ve lost.
We’re working to make the air travel experience better than it’s been, and we’re well on our way. There’s more work to do. But even compared to one year ago, passengers are definitely better off and better protected than when we got here.
Kamrin: That gives me a lot of hope. Speaking of which, I know you have a couple of little ones at home. When you imagine a more hopeful future for your kids, what does that look like in terms of equitable and sustainable transportation?
Sec. Buttigieg: They are going to inherit better transportation options than were around on the day they were born. And it’s exciting to think about that.
I’m determined to make sure by the time they’re of driving age, that transportation is much safer and much more sustainable than it was when I got my driver’s license, and that they have more options to get around — whether they’re going to wind up behind the wheel or not. And that’s definitely something we can actually start to deliver with this funding that we have.
I also just think they’re going to live in a richer and more robust democracy. Part of how we work to make that possible is to show that democracies can deliver, which is part of what’s at stake in taking care of the basics. It’s why President Biden has been so focused on things like transportation, broadband Internet access, clean water and pipes.
We’re taking care of the basics so that there’s greater public confidence in what good government can achieve.
A version of this article was originally published in The Go Go Go Edition of the Goodnewspaper.
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