Buttigieg sails through hearing; stresses infrastructure

Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., appears one step closer to taking over the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) after sailing through a Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 21. Noting a “bipartisan appetite for a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure,” he said that good transportation policy can make the American Dream possible by “getting people and goods to where they need to be, directly and indirectly creating good-paying jobs.”

Just one day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Buttigieg sat before the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, where he appeared to appeal to both Republican and Democrat — from urban and rural states — senators. The outgoing committee chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he was confident the former Democratic presidential candidate would be confirmed as the next U.S. secretary of transportation.

“We also have a lot of work to do to improve the infrastructure in this country, a mission that will not only keep more people safe but also grow our economy as we look to the future,” Buttigieg said during his opening remarks before the committee.

“Mayor Buttigieg has impressive credentials, which demonstrate his intellect and commitment to serving our nation,” Wicker said. “As a former local elected official, he will bring a valuable perspective to the Department of Transportation regarding the transportation infrastructure needs and challenges of towns and cities throughout our country.”

The Republican touted the nominee’s educational background as a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, which he said “will serve our country well as we address our nation’s transportation policy priorities.”

Following the hearing, Chris Spear, the American Trucking Associations’ president and CEO, urged the committee to “swiftly” move Buttigieg’s nomination forward to the full Senate for confirmation.

“Having served as the mayor of a city sitting at the crossroads of America, Mr. Buttigieg has had an up-close and personal look at how our infrastructure problems are impacting Americans — and how important it is to solve them,” Spear said. “As he conveyed throughout his testimony today, greater federal investment in infrastructure is critical to enhancing transportation safety and growing our ailing economy. That work begins with securing immediate funding to address our short-term needs over the next decade while we develop new, technology-driven solutions over the long-term, and ATA stands ready to assist the Biden Administration in advancing a robust highway funding bill across the finish line.”

Buttigieg also received praise from Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who said he had “put on a clinic on how a nominee should work and act. You haven’t avoided the questions. You’ve been straightforward. And you know what the hell you’re talking about. And that’s really pretty damn refreshing.”

Tester said the importance of infrastructure in “rural America is as important as it is anywhere in the country. Making sure that rural America has access to the dollars — even though we don’t have as many people per square mile — is critically important.”

The Montana senator shared a story of how well-built highways can save farmers and truck drivers “hundreds, if not thousands of dollars every year” because they put less wear and tear on vehicles “so you can run them longer. That is why we need to make sure rural America is taken care of.”

He noted that a state like Montana does not contribute enough federal gas tax to fund a new highway in that state. “But the truth is that all of us working together as Americans with the gas tax fund, we’ve done it,” he said of the Highway Trust Fund (HTF).

“I’ve said before, we’re living off of the infrastructure investment of my parents and grandparents,” Tester added. “And quite frankly, that’s unacceptable. We owe more toward kids than that and we shouldn’t be doing it on borrowed money — we should be doing it, we should be paying for it.”

The HTF, supported by the federal gas tax that hasn’t increased since 1993, has relied on deficit spending for decades. Buttigieg said during the hearing he was open to different funding options, noting that “sooner or later there will be questions about whether the gas tax can be effective at all” as vehicles continue to become more fuel efficient and battery-electric vehicles become more prevalent.

Buttigieg said the tax could be revisited, adjusted or connected to inflation in the future. But after the hearing, a Buttigieg spokesman walked that statement back, saying that while a variety of highway investment options need to be on the table, “increasing the gas tax is not among them.”

The Biden Administration promised a large infrastructure plan for the nation that is expected to be unveiled in the coming months. Still, it was not directly addressed during the hearing. Buttigieg did make commitments to the senators to review federal highway safety programs, including how electronic logging device (ELD) rules affect agriculture haulers, particularly those who haul livestock.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) raised that point. “That is something that I hope you and I can work on together for the ag industry — the livestock industry — make sure that they have the needed flexibility in their hours of service.”

Buttigieg, who during his testimony stressed the importance of safety in the transportation world, noted “that sometimes our policies can’t tell the difference between live animals and other cargo. And it’s one of the things I’m eager to look into and to work with you on as well.”

In his opening statement, Buttigieg said: “Safety is the foundation of the department’s mission, and it takes on new meaning amid this pandemic. We must ensure all of our transportation systems — from aviation to public transit, to our railways, roads, ports, waterways, and pipelines — are managed safely during this critical period, as we work to defeat the virus.”

With the Democrats taking over control of the Senate this month, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) will become the new chairwoman of the committee.

“I am very excited that the president has nominated Mayor Pete Buttigieg,” Cantwell said during the hearing, her last as minority ranking member. “And I look forward to his vision in leading the Department of Transportation. As a mayor, I know you’re no stranger to the challenges that a region faces on transportation infrastructure issues. I know that you earned national recognition for your ‘smart streets’ project that created a safe environment for all road users, the project resulted in over $100 million in private sector investment. You used your experience as mayor to help forge that, and I hope that you will do that for communities across the United States of America.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay cabinet secretary and take over the DOT, which has an $87 billion budget, more than 50,000 employees, and more than a dozen administrations that regulate the trucking industry, the nation’s highway system, airspace, and more.

The Biden Administration has laid out some basic ideas of what it wants to do with transportation over the next four years, including modernizing infrastructure, replacing roads and bridges, and keeping a focus on clean energy. “We’ve seen the need for a more resilient economy for the long-term, and that means investing in a modern, sustainable infrastructure and sustainable engines of growth — from roads and bridges to energy grids and schools, to universal broadband,” his transition team wrote. “Biden has a plan to meet the climate crisis, build a clean energy economy, address environmental injustice, and create millions of good-paying union jobs.”

This article was originally posted by American Trucker.