WASHINGTON (NewsNation Now) — The new head of the U.S. Department of Transportation is calling for a massive infrastructure investment in the country.
Secretary Pete Buttigieg was sworn in Wednesday by Vice President Kamala Harris, with his husband at his side.
Buttigieg is the first openly gay cabinet member confirmed by the Senate. President Donald Trump appointed a cabinet-level member last year.
In one of Buttigieg’s first interviews since formally taking office, NewsNation had an in-depth conversation about infrastructure.
As for the work ahead, a 2019 report ranks the U.S. 13th in the world for infrastructure quality, down from 5th place in 2002, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.
The millennial mayor turned presidential hopeful traded in his title “Mayor Pete” for Secretary of Transportation.
Now, he said he has his work cut out for him.
“There’s so much that we have to do right now. First of all, dealing with the pandemic, making sure that travelers and workers are safe. But that’s just the beginning,” Buttigieg said.
Secretary Buttigieg — one of the youngest people to ever hold that title — is calling for a generational investment in infrastructure.
Joe Khalil: Every year there are billion-dollar highway projects as well. Are we rethinking the way people go to work? After the pandemic, it seems as though people may be staying at home, working remotely more often, is that investment moving forward going to be a wise use of funds?
Buttigieg: It’s definitely time to prepare for the future instead of just recycling the ideas of the past. We’re always going to need good roads and highways. But the way they’re laid out might change quite a bit. When I was mayor of South Bend, we realized so many of our streets were not about pushing vehicles through as quickly as possible. They were about pedestrians, bicycles and for that matter small businesses. We should be thinking about that as a country too.
But before addressing future plans, Secretary Buttigieg is responsible for airline, rail and public transit industries all currently in crises.
“In the context of the pandemic, there are fewer riders paying those fares. And that’s been a huge strain on the system, it’s one of the reasons why the president’s leadership on the American recovery, rescue package is so urgent,” he said.
Buttigieg said passing the COVID-19 relief package will be crucial to helping those industries survive.
A large part of President Biden’s economic plans hinge on clean energy and zero emission vehicles.
For towns and states whose economies run on the coal, oil and gas industries, that could mean serious job loss.
Khalil: What role is your office going to have to play in that transition and making sure people aren’t losing their livelihoods?
Buttigieg: Well, this hits home for me literally because I grew up in a city that was home to an automaker, and that automaker was gone by the time I was born and we were still feeling it. But I believe that there is way more upside than downside in these new technologies. Provided that we meet these new technologies in a way that supports, and is often led by American workers. Look, I believe American workers are the best positioned in the world to innovate, to create and deliver these new kinds of vehicles.
With the vast challenges of re-innovating an entire sector of the economy and leading transportation through a global crisis, NewsNation asked Secretary Buttigieg what about being mayor of a town of 100,000 people makes him qualified for this job.
“I’ll tell you, when you’re a mayor you are living and breathing infrastructure,” he said. “And that was certainly true in our city. We are a city in the heart of the industrial Midwest. I had a lot of issues with how people get around.”
Still, there are some lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have reservations. 13 Republican senators voted against Buttigieg’s nomination to the cabinet.
“He lacks some experience in that area,” said Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.
Ernst said she doesn’t feel Buttigieg has any expertise when it comes to transportation, specifically, although she did vote to confirm him.
“I don’t feel he has the direct level of experience, I do believe he has the experience to be a solid leader,” she said.
And as leader of an important sector of American life, Buttigieg said — in the short term — his efforts will be dictated by science.
“Mandating masks on transportation that is federally regulated. And really urging folks to wear masks on public transit, and any other spaces where you’re coming close to other people. The way to get our economy back is to beat the pandemic,” Buttigieg said.