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Buttigieg sees infrastructure opportunity in first 100 days

New Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, sensing a historic opportunity in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, is hoping the time is finally right for a “big, bold” infrastructure package perhaps as large as $1 trillion.

Even before being sworn in as the nation’s 19th (and youngest) transport chief, the 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind., showed his political savvy by meeting with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., late last month to discuss infrastructure.

“We discussed the need to finally deliver on a big, bold infrastructure agenda that centers on jobs, equity and climate,” the majority leader said Dec. 30 after meeting with Buttigieg.

The coronavirus pandemic has increased chances of a major infrastructure plan, Schumer said. A new round of COVID-19 relief included some funding for transport, he said.

“With the coronavirus pandemic upending our economy, including areas of the transportation sector like airlines and hard-hit public transit systems, Pete and I discussed the need to continue delivering relief to workers in those industries in future COVID-19 relief legislation,” Schumer said.

After four years of talk-only infrastructure plans from the outgoing Trump administration, congressional Democrats sounded nearly giddy about the prospect of working with “Mayor Pete” on solid infrastructure plans.

In other words, lame “Infrastructure Week” jokes are out; solid plans for a trillion-dollar infrastructure spending are in.

The senior senator from New York said he was “thrilled to finally have a willing and effective ally in the administration who will work with Congress to use transportation projects as an opportunity to create jobs, grow our economy and address the climate crisis.”

As far as the trucking industry is concerned, it too is excited about working with the new transportation secretary who seems genuinely excited about rebuilding America’s infrastructure.

“Transportation is an issue that touches all Americans—urban, rural, coastal and in the heartland of our nation,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said in a statement. “Having served as a mayor, Pete 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.”

Politics aside, there is solid economic thinking behind a sizeable infrastructure push. For one thing, there are few better ways to get millions of workers back to work. Communities have a desperate need for better roads, bridges, water and sewage systems, and internet access. And with the prime rate near zero, identifying projects that make compelling economic sense won’t be difficult, Buttigieg said.

“We should be leading the world when it comes to transportation infrastructure, not catching up,” the former mayor said on MSNBC last month.

Before the election, Biden called for a 10-year, $1.3 trillion plan. That dedicated $50 billion for fixing highways and bridges, and $5 billion over five years for electric vehicle batteries. The plan also would target $400 billion over a decade for research and innovation of clean energy.

Buttigieg most likely will become “infrastructure czar” at the DOT. It’s a role the youngest DOT secretary would seem to relish as a fresh face atop the sprawling 57,000-person agency often ridiculed as a backwater by Washington politicians.

But under “Mayor Pete,” DOT could ascend to a more visible role within the administration – if only because Buttigieg has admitted to having larger political plans for himself.

“We selected Pete for transportation because the department is at the intersection of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better,” Biden said at the press conference at Buttigieg’s nomination.

So when the president known as “Amtrak Joe” finally gets to work with his protégé dubbed “Mayor Pete,” get ready for a new way to look at infrastructure in Washington, experts said

In short, DOT in 2021 is not your grandparents’ transportation agency.  It understands the effects of climate change. In understands how highway planning can affect minority communities. And as a former mayor, Buttigieg understands how to work states, cities and local governments to build sustainable infrastructure that also builds, in his words, “opportunity, equity, and empowerment.”

Before ending his own presidential ambitions last March, Buttigieg was calling for revitalization of the quickly evaporating Highway Trust Fund. That HTF has been bailed out with more than $50 billion in funds from the general U.S. Treasury the past 20 years.

Buttigieg favored a new user fee system such as a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) fee to replace the fuel tax –18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline, 24.4 cents on diesel, unchanged since 1993. It’s doubtful VMT will be a starter this time around, but the trucking industry and business community in general is backing a gradual increase—say, a nickel a gallon a year over five years—to rebuild the HTF to more sustainable levels.

According to a Biden administration spokesperson, possibly raising the capital gains tax and repealing Trump-era tax cuts could raise as much as $400 billion over 10 years. As the new administration finalizes its plans, nearly anything is possible.

Article Topics

Department of Transportation
Diesel Tax
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