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Q&A: Pete Buttigieg has Eisenhower, Lincoln and buses on his mind

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg addresses an event in February with transportation workers behind him at Union Station in Washington. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is one of the Cabinet members President Biden tapped to explain the melding of infrastructure, climate and equity in the administration’s $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan. In the run-up to the plan’s release, Buttigieg spoke with The Washington Post about electric vehicles, carrots and sticks, and his approach to criticism of the plan. This interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.

In Biden’s infrastructure moonshot, a big question: Can the nation still achieve its highest ambitions?

The Washington Post: In the Eisenhower era, you had broad support for the clear goal of building an interstate highway system. But how do you get people on board for a massive infrastructure project meant, in part, to undo some of the consequences of those past ambitions?

Pete Buttigieg: It’s an interesting way to think of it. I would think of Eisenhower. I would think Lincoln. The other major national infrastructure achievement that is on par with Eisenhower was Lincoln and establishing the nationwide train network. That really matured thanks to his efforts. And so about 100 years later, when it was time for the interstate highway system, it didn’t abolish the train, but it recognized that there was going to be a much more important role for vehicle transportation. Now, we’re actually the better part of the century on from the Eisenhower years and we’re recognizing a new reality, which is that policy shouldn’t revolve around the vehicle, it should revolve around the human being. Sometimes that human being is in a car, sometimes on a train, sometimes on foot or two wheels, sometimes flying — and all of that needs to be incorporated into our vision. There was a period when we didn’t know any better, when we thought that if you had a congested road, you just made it bigger. And it turns out that sometimes that works, sometimes that just gets more people to drive and the road gets that much more congested. So we’ve gotten a lot smarter, through experience, as a country. And of course, technology has developed and shifted, especially when you add electrification and automation. Those will ultimately add up to changes that are putting no less distance between us and the ’50s than there was between the ’50s and the Lincoln era.

The Post: You can point to Lincoln building the national rail network or Eisenhower’s highways. But right now it feels harder to put your finger on what are these human-centric things the federal government can get behind paying for?

Buttigieg: Yeah, it’s got a different shape because the investments are distributed. So this is often playing out one community at a time. Now, parts of it are about a national network, as we hopefully improve what’s available for passenger rail in the U.S. And in other parts of the infrastructure conversation, building out a level of broadband connectivity and a 21st-century energy grid that are, I think, as important and revolutionary as the national railway network is. That’s obviously a little outside my lane. But specific to transportation, it is about making it possible for people, and goods, to get around in whatever way makes the most sense. So, yeah, it won’t have that same kind of concrete quality, so to speak, of something like the interstate highway network. But I’ll add one more to that. A big part of this is taking care of what we have, and you’ve got to do much better at that. There’s always this pull toward adding something new — that sometimes actually comes at the expense of fixing what we have. We’ve got to change that because sometimes the biggest difference we can make is to improve, enhance — or maybe even reduce or remove — something that was already there.

The Post: Last year when the House passed a transportation bill along many of these lines, the retort was quick and clear from the Republican side. It often came down to the words “Green New Deal.” How does the debate move past that impasse?

Buttigieg: Well, fundamentally, I view this as a jobs bill. We’re going to do a major investment in American economic competitiveness. Now, this jobs bill will have climate benefits, major ones, and that is a good thing. Being against the jobs bill because it will help the climate is a bit like — it’s like being against a covid bill because it’s going to lift millions of people out of poverty. We’re talking about a good thing connected to another good thing, and that’s how we’re going to talk about it.

The Post: Republicans were opposed to that other bill. What format does this take as you try to move it through Congress?

Buttigieg: We don’t yet know what package or combination of pieces is ultimately going to carry this work forward. We just know what the work looks like. I’d say the principles are pretty clear. It’s about five things. It’s about economic strength, the competitiveness of this country. It’s about safety and taking care of the fundamentals. It’s about climate and resilience and preparing us for a future that’s coming, whether we’re ready or not. It’s about equity and making sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the Eisenhower years, and, on the contrary, use this as a force for greater equity. And it’s about the future, it’s about the transformation that, again, is coming, ready or not, in our technologies, and making sure that we’re ahead of it, not catching up. So those principles are going to guide the work. It’s clear that they guide us toward lots of things, ranging from making it easier to acquire and drive an electric vehicle, to making it easier to not need a vehicle.

The Post: How are you going about the work of figuring out the best projects? Are you going out to states and looking for “twofers,” projects that are good for transportation, good for moving human beings, and also deal with the climate?

Buttigieg: Part of the success of [discretionary grant application] programs like BUILD and INFRA has to do with that knowledge that often the good ideas are coming from the bottom up. They don’t all have to be centrally planned out of Washington. It’s one of the reasons why — in addition to what we hope to accomplish legislatively — we see in those discretionary dollars, climate, for example, and equity, being more and more of a consideration. At the same time, some things really require a cohesive national vision. EVs [electric vehicles] are a good example. I’m thrilled to see states stepping up and doing things that help drive adoption. Really for the entire country to move that direction, you’ve got to have enough charging points and enough places across the country that people wouldn’t hesitate to get one because they’d be worried about their range. That can only happen, I think, at a national level. We’re certainly looking, in particular, to the projects that states have generated, the ideas that they have, from passenger rail to transit-oriented developments at the very local level, and finding ways to support them. And I think this is another example where, at least partly, a decentralized or distributed approach is going to be more efficient.

The Post: There’s a real concern about addressing the needs of particular parts of the country. Some local officials say they need flexibility, and they don’t want to emphasize certain environmental questions. How can you both set national rules and offer the flexibility some say they need?

Buttigieg: I think these things go best when we’re clear about the outcomes that we want and we’re shaping policy, both the carrots and the sticks, in that direction. Flexibility is good as long as it doesn’t run counter to the overall policy objective of the federal dollar that’s being sent out. And I do think a lot of states have been really moving forward. We don’t want to do something that incentivizes, for example, too much, kind of fancy rebuilding where there’s a need to just take care of the maintenance backlog first. We hope the states do it on their own. You might need to see that woven into the design of the federal funds.

The Post: The Trump administration halted efforts to collect new information on transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions on the state level. Are you reversing that? And how are talks with the auto industry progressing on tailpipe emissions standards?

Buttigieg: Definitely be on the lookout for more here, because you can’t manage what you can’t measure. And any time an administration acts to stop counting or checking or researching something, you’ve got to ask, why? Obviously, this is a different approach, which has been codified in the president’s executive order on restoring scientific integrity in this administration. On the latter, obviously, we have a more robust view of what we ought to be doing in the clean car space. I think a lot of the auto manufacturers are coming to embrace the necessity of this, as well. And you’ll see progress on that front, as well.

The Post: Modeling done last year on a series of potential congressional actions to address climate change showed the impact on emissions of getting to electric vehicles and ending the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035. That’s what made the big difference in the numbers by 2050. How are you getting people to focus on that, if that really is the goal?

Buttigieg: Not only that, that’s not enough, right, because you look at the number of internal combustion engines that would still be on the road in that scenario, and will be with us for a long time. And that’s part of why being smart about the emissions standards is so important. So, I think, there’s a general sense of how important that is. I think it will be brought to a head by action-forcing events, starting with the climate summit in April and then, of course, the COP talks [United Nations Climate Change Conference] in Glasgow later on this year … as well as the ongoing domestic effort to make good on the president’s vision that this is job-creating. And that’s where we’re going to be very closely working with auto manufacturers and others in the private sector, who are actually doing the work of creating economic opportunity and jobs in a climate-centered way.

The Post: People on your team talk about buses, which are looked down on by a lot of people in this country. They could address climate and energy goals, both. More frequent bus service in a community feels like a small thing. But if you do it everywhere, maybe it’s a big thing. Do you have buses on your mind?

Buttigieg: Totally!

The Post: How do you sell them to people who are so skeptical?

Buttigieg: We already did the and low- and no-emission bus grant program. We announced it recently, just to kind of keep that program going. In terms of new opportunities, getting more people onto viable mass transit, whether that’s bus, bus rapid transit or other means, is going to be really important. But again, this isn’t just about the rolling stock, the vehicles and routes. This is also about development. It’s one of the reasons I’m really looking forward to working with Secretary [Marcia L.] Fudge and the Housing and Urban Development Department and the local communities to line all these things up. How we build out communities, in ways large and small, is just as important to the future of transportation as what kind of equipment you put out there to get around.