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Nation & World

Buttigieg On Biden Administration's Priorities For Transportation Department

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Last year, on this very day, Pete Buttigieg was campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination in Boone, Iowa. Well, today a Senate committee approved his nomination for secretary of transportation in his one-time rival's Cabinet. And should the full Senate confirm him, the former mayor of South Bend is on track to be the youngest person to lead the Transportation Department, the first openly gay Cabinet member and, of course, a key player in implementing some of the many executive orders President Biden has issued in the one week he has been president.

Pete Buttigieg, welcome.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CHANG: All right. Well, there is a lot to get to, but I first want to start with a general question about your new job-to-be. Transportation - it's this huge department with oversight over rail, air, roads, cars. Your predecessor, Elaine Chao, had a background at DOT. So I'm curious, how did you approach learning all the nuts and bolts of this as you prepare to take on this totally new job?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it is a large and complex department, over 50,000 employees and a budget in the tens of billions of dollars. And fortunately, I've been supported by an extraordinary transition team helping to make clear all the issues that we face. And I'm arriving with something of a bottom-up perspective on what it's like to engage federal agencies like the Department of Transportation. You know, there are so many cities across the country, like the city that I led that have a lot at stake in making sure that we meet our goals in terms of climate, job creation, equity and, of course, safety in this department. And I think having that perspective of having interfaced with enormous federal bureaucracies from the local perspective will be something else that I can offer in the department.

CHANG: OK. Let's turn to the executive orders that I mentioned. Today President Biden signed a series of executive orders on climate change. But the thing is, with climate change, you have this issue where there is some buy-in from industry on things like fuel efficiency standards. But there is pushback, some in Congress. So how do you turn executive orders into lasting policy if you can't get them passed by Congress?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, we're going to make every effort to have legislative action to - we need all of the levers working in the same direction. I think the most important thing we have to do is put an end to the false construct that says that this is about climate versus jobs. Look. Climate policy is jobs policy. And the reality is the only way to have a sustainable growing economy is to grow jobs in a way that helps, not hurts, our climate goals.

If you look at the president's executive order, if you look at the work that's going to be done, for example, really, I think, supercharging the American electric vehicle industry with government leading the way in its own purchasing but also supporting consumers being able to thrive with electric vehicles - that's unlocking a huge economic opportunity in places like the industrial Midwest, where I come from, where we have a chance to build these things.

CHANG: What about when it comes to coal? I mean, let's look at the Senate. We're talking about a 50-50 split in the Senate. How do you persuade someone like, say, Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who comes from a coal-producing state, or Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who's also from a coal state - how do you convince them to vote against their state's financial interests?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, I just don't accept the premise that it is against the state's financial interests, at least not if we get the policies right. Of course, we need to make sure we are supporting workers and industries and communities that are going through that transition as we move to a less fossil-fuel-dependent economy. But on the whole, even in these particular states, this will be a win, especially if you compare it to the cost of doing nothing. At the end of the day, this is about protecting against the destruction of lives and property due to climate change. And that's the course we're on. It's why the president's leadership, in order to make sure we change it, is so important no matter what state you live in.

CHANG: OK. Let's talk a little bit about - more about what you'll be dealing with when you're confirmed, if you're confirmed as transportation secretary. Public transit systems throughout the country have been struggling for years and then even more so during this pandemic because ridership has further declined in many regions. Where do you even start to try to reinvigorate these systems in a post-pandemic world?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it starts with the president's rescue package, which identifies $20 billion to support our transit agencies that have taken such a blow. But the reality is just trying to prop them up or get back to pre-COVID levels isn't really good enough when you consider the need for us to have stronger transit systems. It's important for safety. It's important for climate. It's important for economic growth. And it's important for equity because we know that in many parts of the country, there are transit deserts, disproportionately in Black, brown and tribal communities that have cut people off from economic opportunity. But again, if we get this right, this is a great example of the kind of investment that really does pay for itself because it unlocks opportunity. It gives people alternatives for how to get around. And it's going to make our economy and our communities stronger.

CHANG: Well, you're right. Resuscitating these transit systems is going to take a huge infusion of cash, well beyond the $20 billion that you mentioned. Where is that cash going to come from?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, we're going to need to work with Congress in order to make sure we identify sustainable long-term funding streams. But let's also recognize that when it comes to any spending, you know - some spending does pay for itself. Not all spending and certainly not all tax cuts do that. But it's hard to think of a better bang for your buck than investing in robust transit and transportation infrastructure.

CHANG: Well, I'm trying to - I'm thinking now about just, you know, convincing lawmakers who are from states that aren't exactly public transit hubs, that aren't exactly teeming with public transit, how do you convince those lawmakers to fork over this scale of money when we've seen Republican lawmakers throughout this pandemic resist approving money for state and local governments?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, this is why I think it's so important to broaden the way we talk and think about transit. It's - of course, it impacts our biggest cities but not only our biggest cities. That's why I was so glad to see the president's commitment to support any community a hundred thousand and larger with certain kinds of transit resources in rural communities too, my hometown of South Bend - will make a world of difference to be able to strengthen the ability for our bus routes, for example, to serve more people. These are exactly the ways we can...

CHANG: Unfortunately, we have to leave it there. Transportation secretary nominee and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, thank you.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.