President-Elect Joe Biden's selection of Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 presidential candidate and the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to be the next Secretary of Transportation has drawn positive responses from sustainable transportation advocates excited about his big ambitions for transit and his commitment to tackling traffic violence.
Some transportation stakeholders are delighted to see a Midwestern former mayor take the helm of an agency that has not always recognized the unique challenges of transit-poor cities where most Americans live. There is an optimism about Buttigieg's vision for transportation reform, which many believe will be far bigger than South Bend's modest transportation system. Buttigieg at the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) will mean leadership from slow-growing, older industrial communities playing a key role in transportation policy. The reason for this optimism may come from Buttigieg's transportation plan when he was a presidential candidate, which sheds light on what his leadership might bring to DOT.
Candidate Buttigieg's Proposals
As a candidate, Buttigieg's transportation plan was significantly more aggressive at reducing America's dependence on cars than Biden's. Buttigieg proposed a $150 billion budget for the Federal Transit Administration — 13 times more than it spends now. Biden, by contrast, promised to "provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options through flexible federal investments." Biden, however, declined to make such a specific funding commitment as his DOT nominee.
In addition, Buttigieg was the only candidate to propose a shift to a vehicle-miles-traveled tax rather than a gas tax, which many experts agree could dramatically disincentivize driving if properly priced. According to Buttigieg's plan, such a funding approach would provide $165 billion for the Highway Trust Fund to make it solvent through 2029.
His plan as a candidate would require states to plan for maintenance before they are allowed to build new or wider highways with federal funding. This plan calls for updating or fixing at least half of all roads and bridges in poor conditions by 2030. The plan includes $50 billion in state grants for repairing bridges. In addition, he would require states, through metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), to demonstrate how transportation projects improve access to jobs and services.
Buttigieg the candidate also proposed a national commitment to end the epidemic of traffic violence that claims about 40,000 lives on U.S. streets every year, saying that he believes many car crashes are preventable with good infrastructure investments and thoughtful policy. Buttigieg pledged to require states to "actively improve their safety records or road design processes, or else lose federal funding for other roadway projects." Buttigieg made the most of his limited powers as mayor to reform South Bend's transportation network, eliminating or reducing mandatory parking minimums citywide and creating the city's Smart Streets initiative, which created targeted pedestrian and cycling improvements throughout the city.
Buttigieg included electric vehicles in his infrastructure plan, which goes hand-in-hand with his climate plan. He proposed offering $6 billion in grants and loans to cities to partner with private companies and unions to increase battery charging mechanisms. This is consistent with Biden's stated goals to "put the United States on an irreversible path to achieve net-zero emissions by no later than 2050."
Conclusion and Takeaways
If Buttigieg is confirmed and is given the opportunity by President-Elect Biden to implement his ideas, cities, states and private companies will have many opportunities and challenges before them. The opportunities will come in the form of increased funding for transit projects, highways, electric vehicle charging mechanisms and safety infrastructure among others. The funding, however, will come with new rules, regulations and requirements. The challenge will be to have input on those new rules and regulations. It will be important for interested parties, including states and municipalities, to play a key role in helping the new secretary develop the rules and regulations that will come with these new programs and funding sources.