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Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg in the driver’s seat on $1T Biden plan | Business

P.ete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary who holds the purses for much of President Joe Biden’s $ 1 trillion infrastructure package, held up with reporters about its impact – the promise of more electric cars, intercity train routes and larger airports – when a specific question came .

How would he go about building racial justice into the infrastructure?

The 39-year-old former Mayor of South Bend, Ind., And 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, put forward his argument that freeway design can reflect racism, noting that at least $ 1 billion in the bill will add to it To reconnect cities and districts that were racially separated or divided according to road projects.

“I’m still surprised that some people were surprised when I pointed out that if a freeway was built to divide a white and a black neighborhood … that was obviously a reflection of racism,” he said.

Racial justice is an issue where Democratic priorities and Buttigieg’s future coincide. One of his biggest mistakes as a White House candidate was his inability to attract black voters. How he navigates this path into the 2022 midterm elections is likely to shape the fortunes of Biden’s agenda and the Democratic Party, if not his own prospects.

Republicans who wanted to take advantage of the issue pounced on Buttigieg’s words.

“I’ve heard a lot, some strange things, from the Secretary of Transportation who was trying to do this through social issues,” said Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. “To me, a street is a street.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz sarcastically tweeted, “The streets are racist. We have to get rid of the streets. “

But Buttigieg did not get involved and made his way to his next stop: the climate summit in Scotland. There he stood for nearly a dozen interviews as he campaigned for provisions in Biden’s bill that would create a network of charging stations for electric vehicles. He also got involved with young climate activists and took photos with former President Barack Obama.

Regarding racism in the streets, he simply said, “I don’t know who it hurts to acknowledge that damage has been done and to suggest that something be done to fix it.”

His department later announced that it would provide additional discretionary aid to help up to 20 U.S. communities remove portions of highways, remodel rural highways, and repurpose former railroad lines. That could help places from Syracuse, NY, where many residents are supporting a plan to demolish parts and build a walk-in fence, to racially divided areas in New Orleans and St. Paul, Minn.

As Biden prepares to sign the Infrastructure Bill on Monday, eyes turn to the man who is still best known as “Mayor Pete,” a freshman whose promise of “generational change” and his real-life pothole sensitivity Fix it, put him at the forefront of the early days Democratic primaries in the 2020 election campaign.

Buttigieg, who was quick to endorse Biden after the race was abandoned, is now keen to become one of the more powerful brokers in Washington, handling the biggest injection of cash into the transportation sector since the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950s.

“With all the money and scope to spend, Buttigieg is poised to become the most influential minister of transportation of all time,” said Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation. The department was founded in 1967.

Overall, about $ 120 billion of the $ 550 billion in new transportation spend in the bill would come in the form of competitive grants that give Buttigieg some discretion in how the money is used.

A separate social spending bill pending in the House of Representatives would add another billion dollars to the Department of Transportation, which is already anticipating an annual budget increase of over 50 percent to $ 140 billion.

“It’s a lot of money,” said Ray LaHood, a former Illinois Republican congressman and Obama Secretary of Transportation, who, by comparison, presided over the clearance of $ 48 billion in transportation in the 2009 Recovery Act. Since then, according to LaHood, major federal investment in transportation has stagnated, creating a backlog of road, bridge and Amtrak projects that can be tackled quickly.

It’s both a blessing and a challenge for Buttigieg, who announced in August that he would become a father to husband Chasten. He took several weeks of paternity leave to care for the twins and returned in October when Republicans criticized him for leaving his post. More recently, he juggled over time to watch over his young son, who was sick for three weeks and hospitalized with a respiratory disease while he worked on solving national supply chain problems.

“When someone welcomes a new child into their family and takes vacation to take care of that child who is not vacation, it is work,” he said last month. “I will not apologize.”

Starting this week, Buttigieg will join other cabinet members to roll out the plan across the country.

“Look, a lot of it sells itself because the communities never had to be convinced that their bridge needed to be repaired or their airport modernized or their ports invested,” said Buttigieg. “They tried to get Washington to catch up with them.”

Anthony Foxx, who was Obama’s Minister of Transportation from 2013 to 2017, said a major challenge was the massive operational details in the department where Buttigieg is supported by skilled hands. Many programs are new and require clear guidelines for states and communities as to what they are eligible for and how the money is to be given. “You will be managing multiple plans with very high dollar numbers, which is putting pressure on the administrative staff,” Foxx said.

On Sunday, Biden named former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who oversaw the city’s rebuilding efforts after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as watchdog for the money’s payout.

Once many programs are in place, after six to nine months, Foxx said, “then the magic happens of what to fund and what doesn’t cut the mustard.” The winners would come in the form of hundreds of funding announcements for medium-sized road projects, which could be accelerated into spring 2023 with the first awards for multi-billion dollar bridges, intercity rails and the New York Gateway tunnel.

As mayor, Buttigieg was on call to repair roads and potholes. He liked to talk about the most modern sewer systems. Now that message will be national, with much more at stake.

“The currency of politics is notoriety, and it’s getting a lot of attention,” said Larry Grisalano, Buttigieg’s advertising consultant.At the White House, staff warmly refer to him as Secretary Mayor Pete, and Biden has compared Buttigieg to his late son, Beau. The White House celebrated Chasten’s birthday with cupcakes. “You’re the best, man,” Biden said after Buttigieg spoke at the White House that summer.

But in a city full of ambition, Buttigieg’s potential to rise further onto the national stage can target him.

Nina Smith, Buttigieg’s former spokeswoman for traveling campaigns, said that as Biden’s lieutenant on the bill, Buttigieg has an opportunity to make efforts to “root out past injustices.” Buttigieg never won a large percentage of black voters during the 2020 election campaign.

“This is an additional responsibility that I believe he is very aware of and that he makes a central part of his job,” said Smith, a Democratic political advisor.

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