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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg On Wins, Losses, Future Of Infrastructure Deal

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We're going to go to the secretary of transportation now, Pete Buttigieg. He's been a big part of this process. Secretary Buttigieg joins us now.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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

CHANG: Good to have you. All right. We just heard Sue Davis outline the basics of this bill, a trillion-dollar plan to boost so-called hard infrastructure, more than $500 billion in new spending. This is, of course, a bipartisan agreement. So I imagine Democrats had to give something up, right? What did you have to give up? Can you talk about that?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it is trimmed a little bit from what the president first proposed in the spring. But let's be clear. This is an investment of historic proportions. We're talking about the biggest dedicated funding for bridges that we've ever done, I mean, since the Eisenhower administration and the interstate system was set up in the first place. It's the most we've done for public transit federally ever - I mean, in the history of the country, the most we've done for passenger rail since the inception of Amtrak, and also some priorities that aren't exactly transportation, but are definitely infrastructure, whether we think about something that looks to the future, like getting every American connected to fast, affordable internet, or something that's been part of infrastructure for millennia, which is getting clean, safe drinking water. And in this case, that means getting the lead out of the pipes.

CHANG: That said, Democrats did have to agree to bring down new spending. And I'm curious, are Democrats going to try to bring that back in, the separate $3.5 trillion spending package that's sort of operating on a separate track right now?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the scope of that package is a little bit different, although there are certainly some areas that are touched in both. And I'll give you an example. You think about climate. A lot of the action and policy on climate will be in that future reconciliation package. But I want to point out that the investments we're going to make in resilience or public transit or getting clean electric vehicles like buses out to transit agencies - they're part of this transportation package, but they bear on climate as well.

Let me also say that a lot of the things that are teed up for that second package - what we would think of as human infrastructure, like making sure that there's paid family leave for Americans or making child care affordable - you know, I'm not giving up hope that at least a few Republicans could vote for that. But we recognize that it may have to move with only Democratic votes, and if so, so be it.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about what the infrastructure bill would do. It would provide about $550 billion in new federal money for roads, bridges, rails, transit systems. As transportation secretary, what would you prioritize as the most important project to get underway immediately if the bill passes?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, one thing I'll mention is the importance of safety. You know, that's the basic reason that my department exists. And this bill contains $11 billion in transportation safety programs, including a Safe Streets for All program that's going to help local communities reduce crashes and fatalities. So that sits alongside the work that we know is urgently needed on roads and bridges, ports and airports. You know, by some reckonings, there's not one of the world's top 25 airports anymore that's in the U.S., and we want to change that. The opportunities around transit, around passenger rail, are huge.

And again, this is about issues like climate. That's very much at stake in creating alternatives for individuals, making it easier to have an electric vehicle with the billions we're going to invest in charging stations. And let me also say, this goes a long way toward equity because this is going to help communities that have been overburdened and underserved get a fair shot at opportunity through better transportation investment.

CHANG: Let me ask you - you mentioned that there may be only Democratic support for the larger $3.5 trillion spending bill. Now, Speaker Pelosi has said that she will not pass this infrastructure bill without passing that separate spending package. Are you at all concerned that that could torpedo the Republican support for this infrastructure bill?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, these are separate packages. And so we recognize that there are some things that the president...

CHANG: Right. But congressional leaders are making them contingent upon each other, right?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. I mean, it's up to the House to decide the sequence, the timing, the process. And we respect their role, just like the Senate will do its side. But the president supports both of these measures. And at least one of them can move forward with bipartisan support, and that's so much the better.

CHANG: Well, the thing is, Democrats aren't even unified right now. Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema - she played a big role in this bipartisan deal, but she's already saying that she won't support the $3.5 trillion spending package. So without all Senate Democrats on board, aren't both measures kind of at risk?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, my understanding is she's indicated that she'll vote to proceed, but that she needs to know more in order to support whatever the final version of that package will be. And I imagine that's true for every one of the 100 members of the Senate, 50 of whom will have to vote yes in order for it to move. Of course, that is a very important piece that needs to move forward. But what we're marking today is the fact that this infrastructure side, the transportation side, after a lot of twists and turns, looks like it's on track to have bipartisan support and move forward in the Senate.

CHANG: That is U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Thank you very much.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Good to be with you.

CHANG: Good to have you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.