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Buttigieg would bring his agenda and Biden’s to Department of Transportation

Former rival backs transformative change to how nation pays for highways

Pete Buttigieg at a campaign rally in Arlington, Va., in February.
Pete Buttigieg at a campaign rally in Arlington, Va., in February. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

On paper, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg seems an unlikely pick for President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of Transportation. 

The 38-year old former mayor oversaw a budget of about $358 million in a city of about 102,000. At the DOT, he’ll oversee a budget of about $90 billion — including about $22 billion in discretionary dollars — and manage a staff of about 55,000.

But in choosing Buttigieg as his designee to run the Department of Transportation, Biden has picked one of the few former Democratic presidential rivals to outright endorse a transformative change to how highways are paid for. The choice was announced Tuesday evening by the Biden transition team.

Buttigieg, who beat out former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti to receive the nomination, was one of the few 2020 presidential contenders to outright endorse converting from the current Highway Trust Fund, which is paid for through the gas tax, to a “vehicle miles traveled” alternative that would tax drivers based on their road mileage.

Pilot programs for such an alternative are underway in states such as Oregon, California, Colorado and Washington State.

But widespread deployment is considered ambitious, and even Buttigieg’s plan called for a $165 billion infusion of federal dollars to keep the highway system solvent through 2029 while the conversion occurred.

However, Buttigieg made clear during his run for president that the status quo no longer worked.

The 18.4-cents-a-gallon federal gas tax and the 24.4-cents-a-gallon diesel tax has been the primary funding mechanism for the nation’s highways since construction of the Interstate Highway System began in the 1950s. It was last increased in 1993 under President Bill Clinton and for most of its history was straightforward: Vehicle users paid federal gas taxes, and those taxes went into a fund that paid to build and maintain highways. 

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But the fund also was tapped for transit in the 1980s, and in the 1990s some was siphoned off for deficit reduction. Since 2008, Congress has sustained highway spending by transferring over $140 billion of general revenues to the fund.

“The reality is we are going to have to graduate from the gas tax,” Buttigieg said at a panel on infrastructure in February, adding that the gas tax is “not a viable long-term funding mechanism for our highways.”

$1 trillion

Just as Biden hopes his infrastructure plan will create jobs, Buttigieg’s own infrastructure plan promised to create 6 million well-paying jobs, clean up the environment and create affordable ways to get to work. That plan cost $1 trillion, including a $160 billion investment in transit.

Those ideas appear likely to mesh well with Biden’s. 

Biden ran on a platform of “Build Back Better,” and has identified transportation, the top source of greenhouse gas emissions, as a way to both rejuvenate an economy battered by the pandemic and to work toward a solution to climate change.

He’ll have a key opportunity to invest in infrastructure next year: Congress has extended the 2015 highway law, which expired in October, through the end of 2021, giving Biden an obvious legislative vehicle to use as he pursues his infrastructure agenda. 

If confirmed, Buttigieg will step into the DOT role at a crucial time for transportation: The pandemic has decimated most modes of transportation, with airlines, transit and Amtrak among those seeking federal financial aid to help it survive a steep decline in ridership. 

Beyond that, the administration will likely be reversing President Donald Trump’s moves to loosen Obama-era auto emissions regulations; automobiles are increasingly embracing autonomous technology, and the Department must determine how to regulate such technology. And it will have to monitor the Boeing 737 Max’s return to the sky and complaints that the safety culture has become too lax at the Federal Aviation Administration.  

Buttigieg did not initially appear a front-runner for the DOT position, but his role as a key surrogate for Biden during the campaign made him a likely choice for a Cabinet post. When Buttigieg endorsed him, Biden praised his former rival’s integrity and compared the military veteran to his son, Beau, who died of brain cancer in 2015.

“Pete Buttigieg is more than ready to finally address our nation’s infrastructure crisis,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, ranking member of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which has jurisdiction over transit. “I look forward to working with him to pass a major infrastructure package and transit reauthorization next Congress so we can ensure that our infrastructure and public transportation systems will be sustainable and equitable for generations to come.”

Former DOT Secretary Ray LaHood, who had endorsed Emanuel for the position, called Buttigieg’s selection “a home run. “I think it sends a very loud message to cities and mayors all over America that they’re very important to [Biden’s] plans to get America working again,” he said.

The transportation post — Buttigieg’s first public service beyond his time in the military and as mayor — gives him a unique position to shepherd through what has emerged as a key Biden initiative. He’d also be a groundbreaker, according to the LBGTQ Victory Fund, which reports that he would be the first out LGBTQ cabinet secretary approved if the Senate confirms him.

“As an out LGBTQ person, Pete will bring a unique perspective that will inform and influence policy throughout the federal government,” said Annise Parker, President & CEO of LGBTQ Victory Institute. “Most important, however, is that Pete will bring his intellect and energy to the Department of Transportation and our nation will be better off because of it.”

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