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Pete Buttigieg talks Florida’s deadly roads and Biden’s transportation plans

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with the transportation secretary about high speed rail, pedestrian deaths and Republican criticisms of the proposal.
Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. [ STEFANI REYNOLDS | AP ]
Published May 13
Updated May 14

President Joe Biden has proposed a $2.5 trillion plan that his administration says would put tens of thousands of people to work rebuilding the country’s ailing infrastructure network and accelerating the fight against climate change. It also includes money to train workers and provide care for older and disabled Americans — investments that don’t meet the traditional definition of “infrastructure.” To pay for it, Biden would raise taxes on corporations.

The Tampa Bay Times recently spoke via Zoom with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg about the administration’s new proposal. The following is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity and brevity.

When President Barack Obama attempted to use the stimulus to push high speed rail, he was met with tremendous opposition and many of those new proposed lines were rejected — including in Florida. How did that experience affect the Biden administration’s approach in addressing transit in his jobs and infrastructure package?

We’ve got to prepare for the future in a long term and comprehensive way. So a lot of what was proposed in 2009 had enormous benefit for the long run, but it was really proposed as part of a short-term stimulus. The American Jobs Plan, on the other hand, is about making sure that the American economy is competitive for the rest of our lifetimes. There will certainly be a lot of what are called “shovel-ready projects” that can add to job creation as soon as the bill is enacted. But we’re also talking about really gearing up for a future in which all different forms of modes of travel need to be integrated in a better way than they are now.

We can’t think about highways one year and think about trains the next year and think about transit the year after that. We need to create more opportunities for individuals to be able to get to where they need to go — school, work, loved ones — and make sure that whether we’re talking about getting around in a vehicle, or whether we’re talking about getting around on foot or on public transit, that we have the best and most options available to individuals as we go.

We’ve definitely learned a lot of lessons from past experience, including the missed opportunities from before when I think sometimes politics or ideology got in the way. This time around, what we’re seeing is there’s enormous support among the American people for this American Jobs Plan. We just got to make sure that’s actually reflected in Washington, too.

How is high-speed rail included in President Biden’s vision for Florida?

Well, this is a jobs creation agenda. And when we’re talking about rail there are two things in particular: the direct jobs, of course, a lot of union construction, jobs, improving, maintaining or adding rail service; and then the jobs it unlocks by better connecting communities to each other. Florida is an example of a state where you’ve got a lot of major metro centers that are not so far away from each other that you couldn’t make day trips, but you need to have fast, affordable, and increasingly clean means of getting there, which is one of the reasons why Florida is such a great candidate for rail.

Now, a big part of the $80 billion that the President has proposed is what we call “fix it first” — just taking care of what we’ve got. Amtrak service, for example, and any kind of regional opportunities, too. We also think we should be adding high speed rail. This bill won’t be the last word in a national high speed rail network. But it will be enough to set up routes between city pairs that can help demonstrate that America, too, can benefit from high speed rail. It just doesn’t make any sense to me that an American citizen should settle for less when a citizen in any other developed country pretty much can count on excellent options for getting around on rail.

To meet the administration’s goals for safer, cleaner transportation in this 21st century economy, does Florida need to wean itself off its car dependency?

We definitely want to make sure Americans have more options than having to drag two tons of metal with you everywhere you go. Now, don’t get me wrong, vehicle travel is always going to be an important part of how we get around. But if it’s the only way to get from point A to point B, that’s going to leave a lot of people out and it’s going to contribute to congestion.

That’s why on everything from pedestrian and bike safety, to high speed rail, we’ve got to create more and better options. And then if you are in a vehicle, we want to make sure there’s a path for that vehicle to be zero emissions, which is why electric vehicles are such an important part of the president’s vision.

I would also add that in the case of Florida in particular, we see why we need to be making major investments in resilience. If a road is getting washed out, or is predicted soon to be below sea level, it doesn’t make sense every year to restore it to exactly the way it was before an extreme weather event. Let’s restore it and fix it right, so that it’s going to last for the next 50 years just as well as it didn’t last.

Along those lines, you’ve laid out a lot of things that sound like maintenance and modernization in a way that addresses the investments the country hasn’t made over the last several decades. What do you say to someone who looks at the plan and says, “We’re spending $2 trillion, why doesn’t it have a bold, inspiring project along the lines of the creation of a national highway system, for example?”

We think this plan will allow us to do both — to take care of what we have and prepare for a future with a ton of change. For example, the electric vehicle charging network that the president is proposing, I think, will have as much impact as anything we’ve done in surface transportation since creating the interstate system itself.

Now, it is true that this doesn’t revolve around a single project like the golden spike of the transcontinental railroad in the 19th century, or the creation of the interstate highway system in the 20th century. Really, what it’s doing is it’s taking an all-of-the-above approach and integrating it so that individuals can get to where they need to be. If there’s one symbol of this plan ... I think, really, it’s just the image of the human being and making our transportation options revolve around our everyday lives rather than the other way around.

Our senator here, Sen. Rick Scott, has questioned whether a lot of this counts as infrastructure. I’ve heard your argument in explaining why things like investments in the American family should count as infrastructure. But what is your plan to try to get Republicans on board and win them on that argument? And are you willing to consider something that’s a little bit more traditional in this first go-round, and maybe move that ahead to a future debate?

Those are the kinds of things that are being negotiated right now. We recognize that it is a process. Republicans in the Senate have come to the table with a plan that’s very different from the President’s plan. But now we have to talk about where there might be some common ground.

What I will say, though, to any senator who is skeptical of categorizing something like the “care economy” as infrastructure is, if you don’t want to call it infrastructure, fine. But if it’s good public policy, we hope you’ll still vote for it. I still haven’t heard a lot of principled arguments against doing more with elder care. And we think that’s the bottom line. Although I could make the academic argument all day for why we think it’s as important to your ability to live a life of your choosing as having a good road or a good bridge.

The plan includes $20 billion to improve road safety and invest in local Vision Zero plans. Many of our local communities have Vision Zero plans, and they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars to add bike lanes and modernized crosswalks and other improvements. Yet, especially here, pedestrian and cyclist deaths continue to rise. Why doesn’t Vision Zero, or an overall strategy to to make our roadways safer, seem to be working here and in many other cities?

I think we need to have an approach where the solutions come from the ground up, but more resources are coming from Washington. And at the same time, we also have to identify and spread the practices that work best. This is not some cosmically impossible problem. We’ve seen cities upwards of half a million people in other parts of the world achieve Vision Zero, and America should be leading the way.

There are a lot of factors that impact pedestrian and vehicle safety here. Some of them have to do with design, some of them are behavioral. We’ve seen improvements in rates of drunk driving, only to see a lot of backsliding on things like distracted driving. The pandemic, by reducing traffic, may have had the unexpected effect of increasing speed and therefore danger on our roadways. All these things need to be brought together and no one community is going to figure out a magic formula.

What we need to do is position every community to be able to look at other communities that have had the most success and emulate those best practices in ways that make sense at home. We applaud the local efforts that have taken place. We need to back them up with technical assistance and real dollars from the federal government.

What are some of those examples of cities that are doing things well that can be emulated here?

If we’re looking globally, Oslo is a good example of a city of about 600,000 people that had zero pedestrian deaths in 2019. Now, there are all kinds of reasons why a city overseas may be different from an American city, and what works there won’t always work here. My point is, they have proven that it can be done. And now we have to find American ways to do this in cities with different climates, different risks and and different cultures, and make sure we have the best of those solutions, being a crosswalk from one community to another.