Criticized during his 2020 presidential bid for not adequately addressing systemic racism when he was mayor of South Bend, Ind., Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg has now made the fight against that issue a centerpiece of his new job.
Buttigieg talks about the issue frequently. On Feb. 4, Transportation Equity Day — the birthday of Rosa Parks — he sent four tweets on the topic. He’s talked about it on MSNBC and CNN. Last week, he talked about it on a Zoom call with the African American Mayors Association.
In his appearances, Buttigieg is repentant for the federal government’s role in building a federal transportation system that frequently cut through Black and brown neighborhoods in order to build freeways, often cutting off Black and brown populations from economic opportunity.
“We recognize how misguided investments and missed opportunities for federal transportation policies have reinforced racial and economic inequality,” he told the mayors’ group. “The wrong kind of investment can divide or isolate neighborhoods.”
Buttigieg has vowed to work to make transportation equitable, helping disadvantaged communities gain access to jobs and economic opportunity — a lofty goal for an agency that has traditionally been considered more about engineering and asphalt than about equality and social justice.
But while those who advocate such a change cheer Buttigieg’s comments, their hope is tempered with skepticism: Rhetoric is one thing, they say. It’s far more difficult to implement policy that will overhaul decades of inequitable transportation policies.
“We want to see all the promises turn into real action, and that’s the thing we’re very excited about,” said Scott Goldstein, policy director for Transportation for America, an advocacy organization that works for equity in transportation. “We’ve got lots of reason to be hopeful, but we’re not going to shy away from holding people accountable for the things they say they want to do.”
“This is not what a DOT secretary sounds like,” said Adie Tomer, head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the liberal Brookings Institution. “He’s focusing on broader shared goals: How do we make sure everyone in America, regardless of the neighborhood they live in, has the opportunity to get to jobs that best fit their skills and gets them the opportunity to succeed?”
Buttigieg has detractors, too. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., cited Buttigieg’s focus on using the department “for social, racial, and environmental justice causes” in his decision to vote against his nomination.
Others are skeptical that a department traditionally focused on engineering efforts can lead the charge for societal change.
“Is the U.S. DOT really going to save the day here?” said Marc Scribner, a senior transportation policy analyst with the libertarian Reason Foundation. He said tearing down highways could lead to people being priced out of their neighborhoods: “When you try to translate lofty goals into policy proposals to deal with these questions, the answers may not be the ones you’re looking for.”
But Shawyn Patterson-Howard, mayor of Mt. Vernon, N.Y., and a board member of the African American Mayors Association, argues it’s time for hard conversations.
Her community, right outside the Bronx, is a transit hub linking Manhattan to the suburbs. But it also has 11 bridges that are now in disrepair, meaning, “we can get to Manhattan sometimes quicker than we can get to the supermarket.”
Her community’s tax base is not financially able to foot the bill for repairs. “There are some things where you need equitable resources to make the playing field even,” she said.
Analysts say the Biden administration is already implementing policies that will make it easier for disadvantaged communities to build: The Federal Transit Administration on Feb. 16 revoked Trump administration guidance that said communities could not count federal loans as local sources of funding.
The department also for the first time listed racial equity as a criterion for being selected for some $889 million in Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, discretionary grants.
Buttigieg isn’t the first Transportation secretary to talk about the federal legacy that transportation policy left on Black and brown communities. During the Obama administration, Anthony Foxx criticized the legacy of urban highways, launching an initiative aimed at examining how infrastructure can be a barrier or bridge to opportunity, jobs and education.
Still, said David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government: “If you were to ask me what policies specific to equity the U.S. DOT implemented under Obama, I would struggle to answer you.” He said the Trump administration didn’t appear to acknowledge racial equity at all, focusing instead on ensuring rural communities received federal dollars.
But much has changed since then. The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year spurred a national reckoning over racism, and a handful of groups, including Transportation for America, have campaigned steadily for years for a more thoughtful transportation policy that ensures that disadvantaged communities have access to economic opportunity.
One change the federal government could make, Goldstein said, would be to change the current Highway Trust Fund formula, which provides 80 percent of funding to highways and 20 percent to transit.
The trust fund, paid for through federal gas taxes, has not been solvent for years, and the federal government has borrowed more than $140 billion from general revenue since 2008 to fully fund it, according to the Tax Policy Center.
Goldstein said the original rationale behind the 80-20 split was that motorists should reap most of the benefits because they paid the taxes. That rationale, he argues, doesn’t make as much sense now, when so much of highways and transit is paid for through general revenue.
Rep. Jesús “Chuy” García, a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said the formula is broken, and that transit systems were crumbling even before the pandemic decimated ridership.
“We’re simply not providing them enough federal funding,” the Illinois Democrat said.
Congress has allocated about $39 billion to transit during the pandemic on top of formula funding, proposing an additional $30 billion in its recent reconciliation recommendations.
Republicans, however, have resisted providing additional dollars to transit, arguing the money too often benefits urban communities at the expense of rural ones.
García suggested an expansion of broadband could help convince Republicans to support an infrastructure bill and argued that it’s worth it to pursue transformational change.
“For too long, transportation policy has been on autopilot,” he said. “We’re at a moment in history where we can begin to reverse those things.”