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Everything we liked (and didn’t like) at Buttigieg’s Transportation Secretary confirmation hearing

Last Thursday, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg faced the Senate for questioning on his nomination to be Secretary of Transportation. We liked almost all of his answers, and we weren’t alone: Senator Tester said Buttigieg’s testimony was “refreshing.” Here’s what T4America liked and didn’t like from Buttigieg’s confirmation hearing. 

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg facing the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee as President Biden’s nominee to be Secretary of Transportation. Screen grab from C-SPAN.

✅ Complete Streets is a priority for Buttigieg

When answering a powerfully-worded question from Senator Schatz (D-HI), a cosponsor of the Complete Streets Act, Buttigieg confirmed his commitment to a Complete Streets approach. He even highlighted the Complete Streets projects that took place in South Bend. (Smart Growth America provided technical assistance to South Bend to pursue Complete Streets demonstration projects.)

“It’s very important to recognize the importance of roadways where pedestrians, bicycles, vehicles, any other mode can coexist peacefully. And that Complete Streets vision will continue to enjoy support from me if confirmed,” Buttgieg said. 

✅  Our “autocentric view” is a problem

Doubling down on his commitment to Complete Streets, Buttigieg noted that transportation in the United States overwhelmingly prioritizes cars. “There are so many ways that people get around, and I think often we have an autocentric view that forgets historically all of the other different modes,” Buttigieg told Sen. Klobuchar (D-MN). “We want to make sure that every time we do a street design that it enables cars, bicycles, and pedestrians, and businesses and any other mode to coexist in a positive way. We should be putting funding behind that.” 

✅  Addressing past damages is a priority 

Transportation infrastructure—particularly urban highways that have demolished and divided communities of color—is sometimes a major roadblock to improving equity in this country. Buttigieg knows this and told senators so in his opening remarks. “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 and undermining government’s basic role of empowering Americans to thrive,” Buttigieg said

✅  Policy hasn’t kept up with automated vehicles 

Automated vehicles (AVs) is one of the transportation technologies that often captures lawmakers’ imagination. But in response to Sen. Fischer (R-NE), Buttigieg acknowledged that the federal government has failed to provide the leadership necessary to ensure that AVs actually deliver the benefits they promise. “[AV technology] is advancing quickly and has the potential to be transformative, but in a lot of ways, policy hasn’t kept up,” Buttigieg said. 

This couldn’t be more true. After investigating deaths from two separate AV crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) billed the utter lack of federal safety performance standards as one of the causes for the fatalities. 

But proactive federal policy is needed for more than just ensuring that AVs are safe. Policy is needed to ensure that AVs are equitable, accessible, and sustainable. That’s why we joined Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and other partners in creating tenets for AV policy. 

✅  He supports passenger rail

Buttigieg said he’s the “second biggest enthusiast for passenger rail in this administration,” referring of course to President Biden, a long-time rider and fan of Amtrak, as the first.  “Americans deserve the highest standard of passenger rail,” Buttigieg said. 

When Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS)—a major supporter of restoring passenger rail to the Gulf Coast—asked Buttigieg if he’s a rail rider himself, Buttigieg said he enjoys short rail trips “and long ones too.” In light of Amtrak’s proposal to cut its long-distance network, this might signal Buttigieg’s support for those critical routes.  

✅  The BUILD program should be easier to apply for

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) offers a host of grant programs for cities and towns to construct and maintain transportation infrastructure. But the application process is often daunting for smaller entities. As mayor of a small city that wasn’t able to have “full-time staff managing federal relations,” Buttigieg told Sen. Wicker (R-MS) that making BUILD and INFRA grants easier for small and rural municipalities to apply for are one of his priorities. 

“It’s very important to me that this process is user-friendly, that criteria are transparent, and that communities of every size, including rural communities and smaller communities, have every opportunity to access those funds,” Buttigieg said. 

✅  Senators on both side of the aisle support Buttigieg

Buttigieg felt the love from both sides of the aisle during his confirmation hearing, with Sen. Tester (D-MT) going as far to say that Buttigieg’s testimony should serve as a model for other nominees facing Senate approval. Sen. Wicker (R-MS) listed Buttigieg’s accomplishments in his opening statement, praising his “impressive credentials that demonstrate his intellect and commitment to serving our nation.”

With slim Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate, bipartisanship will be key to passing surface transportation authorization. But historically, infrastructure is one the areas where lawmakers bipartisanly agree to pass bad policy—rather than ruffling feathers and taking a hard look at what the federal government spends money on and why. (We blogged about it here.) It will take lots of work—like the herculean effort the House underwent this summer to pass a new kind of transportation bill—to make sure that the long-term transportation bill lawmakers must pass this year actually connects funding with the outcomes Americans want.

🚫 His climate answer only mentioned electric vehicles 

When Sen. Schatz asked about Buttigieg’s approach to climate change, Buttigieg only discussed electric vehicles, charging infrastructure, and increased vehicle fuel efficiency as a solution. Yet it’s a fact that electric vehicles and improved fuel efficiency—while critical—aren’t enough to reduce transportation emissions on their own. 

While we applaud Buttigieg’s support of President Biden’s “whole government” approach to addressing climate change (meaning that climate work isn’t confined to a single department like the EPA), we need Buttigieg to understand that USDOT needs to do more than invest in electric vehicles as a climate solution.

We like what we heard. Now let’s make sure it happens 

Buttigieg might be one of the most promising new Secretaries of Transportation that we’ve seen, but we must hold him accountable to following through on these initiatives. Now is not the time to lay back: we have a lot of work to do to ensure that USDOT does what it can internally to connect transportation funding to the outcomes Americans want (like our three principles) and that Congress passes a long-term transportation bill that ends decades of broken, misguided policy.

14 Comments

  1. Paul Pacini

    6 months ago

    Finally, a reasoned approach with the betterment of the People in mind.

  2. Sarah Dyck

    6 months ago

    He also talked about increasing bicycle lanes for cities, high speed rail to reduce the number of cars on the road, and making communities more walker friendly (I would assume through grants from the DOT to communities) in addition to electric vehicles. I do mean this sincerely, I don’t know if your organization includes those as part of addressing climate, but I think they should be included. Not being a transportation expert myself, this is how I as a citizen look at it. I would be interested in knowing what else you were looking for in his answer. I do want to learn more! Thank you!

  3. Marsha Gibson

    6 months ago

    One of the things that should implemented is the use of wind turbines in relation to high-speed vehicles on major freeways as a way to harness the energy created, save it and use it as need to power other needs. Many designs have been around and used in some other countries, but not yet in the U.S. It is time! If one does a Google-search about wind turbines and motor vehicles, several articles and photos should appear!

  4. Reggie

    6 months ago

    The DOT will be the most exciting department with Pete as Secretary. People at the DOT are so lucky to have the glory that is Pete Buttigieg, who is very likely a future President of the USA.

    Now, I want to work for DOT.

  5. Ms. Billie M. Spaight

    6 months ago

    I liked that he was concerned about everybody’s safety–both workers and consumers. He cares about accessibility for all. I hope there will be a lot of work on the self-driving cars. He also expressed awareness regarding jobs–and that’s a biggie.

  6. Linda Slattengren

    6 months ago

    Pete spoke to climate, to equity and neighborhoods,
    Consider the audience, Pete is brilliant and young enough to want an infrastructure for the future!! Let’s not frivolously eat our own please!! Good job Pete!

  7. John

    6 months ago

    You list lots of plusses. Even the minus you list seems like a plus. I am very excited to finally see cabinet members that care about their departments’ goals and responsibilities, and are committed to helping make our society better for everyone instead of enriching a few.

  8. Michael Erickson

    6 months ago

    It is important for equity and environmental reasons to prioritize bicycle pedestrian and electric transit and electric trains, before we go whole-hog on electric cars. Many won’t have the money to buy electric cars. Electric cars do not have the multiple benefits that walking and biking and transit have for modest income families, much less the poor. Until the renewable energy is 100% available and transmission lines can bring it to where it is needed electric cars could keep oil/gas/nuke and other bad sources of energy in business. Also, many companies want to get cheap minerals from the ocean sea beds, which is destructive mining.

  9. Michael Erickson

    6 months ago

    Walking is great fun for the mind and body. Bicycling is beautiful for a sense of self-empowerment. No other modes can compete in healthy and happy attributes.
    Electric cars, depending on the source of electrons, may do more harm than good. It won’t solve congestion, and it may coal, oil, gas, and nukes in power.
    Add up the benefits of active transportation, throw in the issue of equity, and it is no contest. Common Pete, let’s go GREEN!

  10. Michael Erickson

    6 months ago

    Walking is great fun for the mind and body. Bicycling is beautiful for a sense of self-empowerment. No other modes can compete in healthy and happy attributes.
    Electric cars, depending on the source of electrons, may do more harm than good. It won’t solve congestion, and it may keep coal, oil, gas, and nukes in power.
    Add up the benefits of active transportation, throw in the issue of equity, and it is no contest. Common Pete, let’s go GREEN!

  11. Cat Ward

    6 months ago

    Thank you for breaking this down so concisely. I too, would like to know what SoT should also have included in his answer concerning climate change from your perspective. Personally, I think demphasizing our auto-centric culture would be a massive lift for environmental repair. Having reviewed Buttigieg’s collaboration with Notre Dame to introduce Smart Sewers in South Bend, I am hoping for some R&D developments during his tenure. Maybe we can get rid of unsustainable asphalt.

  12. Richard Bellerose

    6 months ago

    At a time when the airline industry is in deep financial troubles, it would not have been an opportune time to mention that high-speed rail between cities up to 400 miles apart could substantially reduce short flights and add to the industry’s woes. Fortunately, Pete understands, better than purists, that talking about reducing flights simply gives Senator Cruz and others a platform to climb on, lamenting the loss of jobs and side-tracking the hearings.

  13. Sarah layman

    6 months ago

    Even if the BUILD P
    program was easier to apply for, it still takes heavy political support from your reps to get your project funded.

  14. Jeffrey A. Gebrian

    5 months ago

    The single most important message, to me, was a recognition of the vast and complex transportation options for the movement of people and vehicles. What a wonderful cultural, ecological and business opportunity for the entire field of Landscape Architecture ! We should be jumping all over this if we aren’t already. We only need to not get in our own way.