Pete Buttigieg, the transportation jobs secretary in charge of much of President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package, spoke with reporters about its implications — the promise of more electric cars, intercity train routes, and larger airports — when he was interrupted by a pointed question.
The 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate laid out his case that highway design can be racist, noting that at least $1 billion in the bill will help reconnect cities and neighborhoods that have been racially segregated or divided by road projects.
“I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed to the fact that if a highway was built for the purpose of dividing a white and a Black neighborhood… that obviously reflects racism,” he said.
Democratic priorities and Buttigieg’s future are aligned on racial equity. His inability to win over Black voters was one of his most serious flaws as a presidential candidate. How he handles this in the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections will almost certainly shape the fortunes of Biden’s agenda and the Democratic Party, if not his own.
Republicans seeking to exploit the issue pounced on Buttigieg’s words. “I heard some stuff, some weird stuff from the secretary of transportation trying to make this about social issues,” said Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. “To me, a road’s a road.” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted sarcastically: “The roads are racist. We must get rid of roads.”
On the other hand, Buttigieg remained silent and proceeded to his next stop, the climate summit in Scotland. He stood there for nearly a dozen interviews, promoting provisions of Biden’s bill that would create a network of electric vehicle jobs charging stations. He also met with young climate activists and posed for photographs with former President Barack Obama. On racism in roadways, he said simply: “I don’t know who it hurts to acknowledge that harm was done and to propose doing something to fix it.”
His department later announced that it would provide additional discretionary aid to up to 20 communities in the United States to help them remove portions of interstates, redesign rural main streets, and repurpose former railways jobs. This could benefit communities ranging from Syracuse, New York, where many residents support a plan to demolish portions of the city and replace them with a walkable grid, to racially divided areas in New Orleans and St. Paul, Minnesota.
As Biden prepares to sign the infrastructure bill on Monday, all eyes are on “Mayor Pete,” a newcomer whose promise of “generational change” and “real-world sensibility” of fixing potholes propelled him to the top of the early Democratic primary contests during the 2020 campaign. Buttigieg, who quickly endorsed Biden after dropping out of the race, now stands to become one of Washington’s most powerful brokers, handling the largest infusion of cash into the transportation sector since creating the interstate highway system in the 1950s.
“Armed with that much money and significant latitude in how to spend it, Buttigieg is poised to be the most influential secretary of transportation ever,” said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Canter for Transportation. The department was founded in 1967.
In total, about $120 billion of the bill’s $550 billion in new transportation spending would be in the form of competitive grants, with Buttigieg having discretion over how the money is spent.
A separate social spending bill before the House would pour billions of dollars into the Transportation Department, which is already expecting its annual budget to increase by more than half to $140 billion.
Starting this week, Buttigieg will join other Cabinet members to pitch the plan around the country. “Look, a lot of this sells itself because communities never needed to be persuaded that their bridge needed to be fixed or that their airport needed an upgrade or that their ports needed investment,” Buttigieg said. “They’ve been trying to get Washington to catch up to them.”
According to Anthony Foxx, the massive operational details in the department, where veteran hands support Buttigieg, will be a major challenge. The latter served as Obama’s transportation secretary from 2013 to 2017. Many programs are new, necessitating clear guidelines for states and municipalities on what they are eligible for and how the funds will be distributed. “They will be managing multiple plans with very high dollar figures, putting administrative staff under strain,” Foxx said.
On Sunday, Biden appointed former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who oversaw the city’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, to be a watchdog over the money’s disbursement.
Once many programs are in place, after six to nine months, Foxx said, “that’s when the magic happens on what to fund and what may not cut the mustard.” The winners would come in the form of hundreds of grant announcements for medium-sized road projects that could accelerate into spring 2023 with the first awards for multibillion-dollar bridges, intercity rail, and New York’s Gateway tunnel.