WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s candidate for Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, appeared on the smooth path for swift confirmation, pledging Senators Thursday, January 21, to implement the government’s ambitious agenda for national infrastructure rebuilding help.
At his confirmation hearing with his nearby husband, Buttigieg pointed out a “generational opportunity” to create new jobs, tackle economic inequality and curb climate change. He promised further discussions with Congress on programs that will require significant investment in the coming months.
“We need to rebuild our economy better than ever, and the Department of Transportation can play a central role in that,” the 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, told the Senate Trade Committee. He pointed to ways to update the auto emissions regulations that President Donald Trump had relaxed and to build a network of charging stations for electric vehicles.
Buttigieg did not specify where the money for large infrastructure investments could come from, but did not rule out a tax hike and raised the possibility of a substantial change in highway funding.
Buttigieg, a former Democratic presidential candidate, was one of the few 2020 candidates to directly support moving from the current Highway Trust Fund, which is paid by gas tax, to a “vehicle miles” alternative that would tax drivers based on their taxes Kilometers of road.
“All options are on the table,” said Buttigieg on Thursday.
Republican Senator Roger Wicker, who chaired the hearing for the last time on Jan. 21 as the Senate completed its transfer of power to the Democrats, signaled likely challenges in finding ways to pay for a costly infrastructure overhaul but said he was looking forward to it the collaboration with Buttigieg.
“I’m pretty sure it’ll be confirmed,” Wicker told the hearing.
Buttigieg would be the first openly gay person to be confirmed in a cabinet position by the Senate. He was among the first cabinet members to receive hearings during inauguration week when Biden called on the Senate, in which the Democrats have a narrow majority, to swiftly approve his candidates.
At a critical time in transportation, Buttigieg would take on the task of implementing Biden’s proposals, spending billions of dollars on major infrastructure improvements, and supporting retrofitting initiatives that can help the US fight climate change.
The coronavirus pandemic has devastated many modes of transport. Airlines, city subway systems, and Amtrak sought federal aid to help them stay afloat.
“A good transport policy cannot play a role less than making the American dream possible and getting people and goods to where they need to be,” said Buttigieg. “But I also acknowledge that in the worst case scenario, misguided policies and missed transportation options can exacerbate racial and economic inequality by dividing or isolating neighborhoods and undermining the fundamental role of government in enabling Americans to thrive.
“There is so much at stake today,” he said.
Biden also wants to immediately mandate the wearing of masks on planes and public transport to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, and Buttigieg made it clear that this would be a top priority in the department.
“We need to ensure that all of our transportation systems – from aviation to public transportation to our railways, roads, ports, waterways and pipelines – are securely managed at this critical time as we work to fight the virus,” he said.
Still, it is Biden’s infrastructure plan, the full details of which are expected to be released in February, that is likely to attract a lot of attention and be the most challenging. Biden has yet to specify how he will pay for new infrastructure spending.
In addition to the usual transportation fixes, which are easier to promise than get through Congress, Biden aims to rejuvenate the post-coronavirus pandemic economy and create thousands of greener jobs by making green upgrades and improvements to public works.
In his prepared remarks to the committee, Buttigieg pointed to his experiences as a veteran of the Afghanistan war as well as the city’s mayor, which are useful for a ground-level approach to improving transport. He described the initiation of a “Smart Street” program to make downtown South Bend more pedestrian and cyclist friendly while generating hundreds of millions of dollars in economic investments.
“I’ve worked with regional and state partners – and across the aisle – to support improvements to our inter-city train system and our now international airport, and we’ve pioneered public-private partnerships,” he said. “We achieved results by engaging people, engaging stakeholders and residents, effectively prioritizing limited resources, and unlocking new resources to solve problems.
“So I will contact the Ministry of Transportation when this is confirmed,” said Buttigieg on January 21.
During the four years that Donald Trump spent at the White House, his administration frequently hosted “Infrastructure Week” events and touted improvements in transportation. But it was unable to urge Congress to pass a comprehensive plan to update the country’s roads and bridges, railways and airports.
By Hope Yen, The Associated Press. Associate press writers Tom Krisher in Detroit and David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.