A Conversation With Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg

Tuesday, November 28, 2023
Leah Millis/REUTERS

U.S. Secretary of Transportation


Cofounder, Centerview Partners; Vice Chair, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg discusses the efforts of the department to coordinate federal transportation projects, improve U.S. infrastructure, and empower the United States to compete on an international level.

EFFRON: Good afternoon. I am Blair Effron, vice chairman of the board of the Council, and I have the pleasure of welcoming today Pete Buttigieg, U.S. secretary of transportation. I’d also like to thank our members here today and those in our audience remotely. 

We will begin with prepared remarks from the secretary. We’ll follow up with me doing twenty minutes or so of question and answer, and then open it up to our members. We are on the record. And, as always, please give your name and your attribution. 

So Mr. Buttigieg currently serves as the nation’s nineteenth secretary of transportation. As secretary, his primary focus has been to deliver the world’s leading transportation system for the American people and the American economy. Under his leadership, the department is focused on five key policy goals: safety, jobs, equity, climate, and innovation. In his first year as secretary, he played a key role in the development and passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law, and he and his team now work on ensuring that it gets funded fairly and equitably. Before serving in the Cabinet, he was a two-term mayor of his hometown in Indiana, South Bend. And from 2012 to 2020, he served seven years as an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and it included a deployment in Afghanistan in 2014. 

With that, we’re pleased to welcome the secretary. Thank you very much. (Applause.) 

BUTTIGIEG: Good afternoon. Thank you, first of all, for the great honor of being here. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to and I think a timely conversation. 

I’ll be very brief. I just want to offer a few thoughts at the outset, beginning by acknowledging what is a little bit incongruous about appearing before the Council on Foreign Relations as the leader of an abundantly domestic policy agency like the Department of Transportation. So I thought I should probably just begin by getting that out of the way, and saying a little bit about why I actually think it’s important for us to be talking at this level about some of the things that we’re working on in the DOT and some of the things we’re working on at a broader level across the administration when it comes to infrastructure. 

And to illustrate that, I think I’ll share a little bit about my personal trajectory, which was that I never imagined that I would be concentrating my efforts on local government, which was my pathway into the policy world, until pretty shortly before I was doing it. When I was a student, I was mostly absorbed in international relations, studied Arabic abroad, and thought that that was where the action is. And came very gradually and then very suddenly to realize the importance of what is closest to home, and found that in trying to reshape the trajectory of my hometown—which, for those who know that Notre Dame is in South Bend but haven’t been there, might not be aware that we’re not really a college town. The university sits outside of the city. The city had a per capita income of roughly $19,000 per person when I became mayor. It’s racially diverse. And its trajectory more than anything was shaped by the loss of the Studebaker auto company, which stopped producing cars in 1963. And when I became mayor in 2011/12, you would have thought it had just happened last week. And finding the ways for that community to find its place in a new and changing world economically and globally was very much the work of my time in office. 

While I was at it, I also knew it was important to connect our biggest ideas and values to our day-to-day work, to the point that I felt it necessary to have something of a philosophy of public works. And the philosophy of public works was to link some of the most profound and cosmic things that are at stake in our lives—even the very purpose of our lives—with some of the most basic and day-to-day things that a government, particularly a local government, looks after. 

And what I mean by that is that I don’t have to know what gives meaning to somebody’s life—faith, family, enterprise, scholarship. I don’t have to know what it is to know that she will be less able to live a life of meaning if there’s holes in the road on the way to drop off someone at school, or if she has to devote mental energy to wondering whether there is a glass of clean, safe drinking water available when she goes to the tap. And so in that sense, there is something, I believe, about taking care of the basics that ultimately ladders up to some of the biggest, again, almost cosmic questions that tend to be discussed in places like the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Now I have the privilege of working on this not just in the context of my hometown, but in the context of President Biden’s national infrastructure vision and package, which is putting more resources into American infrastructure than certainly at any time in my lifetime. And depending on which mode of transportation we’re talking about, in some cases the most in American history. That’s true of transit. We’re doing the most for highways, roads, and bridges since the interstate highway system was created in the first place, and the most for passenger rail since Amtrak was established a little bit over fifty years ago. In addition to all of the work that my colleagues are leading when it comes to broadband internet access, when it comes to being able to have that assurance of a glass of clean, safe drinking water, and the upgrades to the grid that are going to be so profoundly important for us to meet any of our goals, especially when it comes to something like the conversion to electric vehicles. 

So what all of that means is that we have an opportunity and an obligation, with a once in a lifetime $1.2 trillion investment, to shape the kind of built physical infrastructure to handle some of the most unglamorous dimensions of what governments do, to back-up the many mayors, and governors, and county leaders across the country who are trying to deliver for people, in such a way that they have the kind of security, the kind of day-to-day physical security—not in the hard national security sense but in terms of the security of knowing that your kitchen sink won’t poison you, or that there is a safe way to get to work that you can afford—that then empowers people to actually thrive. 

And that’s what we’re up to. We have about 40,000 projects underway across the United States through the infrastructure bill, the majority of them related to transportation. We are also using our regulatory authorities to seek to protect people as they navigate through our transportation systems, and mindful of what we can do with our regulatory tools to protect anybody—from an airline passenger who uses a wheelchair to a homeowner in a community like East Palestine, Ohio living alongside railroad tracks where hazardous materials routinely pass.  

And we’re also recognizing the informal power that is available to us as an agency. And here too I would turn to the example of airlines. Hopefully, everybody had relatively smooth air travel over the last few days. We had 0.1 percent cancellation rate and 0.3 percent delay right over Thanksgiving week—not that anybody’s counting—(laughter)—during what we believe is the busiest time for U.S. air passenger travel employment in American history. But I’m guessing this is a room full of frequent fliers, and we know there’s been a lot of frustration and pain in the air.  

And so part of what we found was that in addition to the physical infrastructure that we could work on and the regulatory tools in our hands, we could get a lot done using informal means like transparency. Some of the same results that I have been chasing through rulemakings that can take a year, or two, or three, arose in a matter of about ten days after sending a letter to the CEOs of America’s airlines letting them know that we were going to publish a very simple way for travelers to find out what was in their customer service plans, instead of having to dig through the PDFs that are buried on a website. And that they might want to think about rewriting those customer service plans before we put up that website. Took less than two weeks to get something done. And so I mention that only to say that we’re also in a context where, just as is true in the realm of foreign policy and national security, we need to use our soft as well as hard power. 

The only other thing I want to mention before getting into the conversation, that I’m really looking forward to, is something that I believe and that the president has very powerfully articulated as well, which is the relationship between the durability and the credibility of a system of government, like democracy, and its ability to look after the basics, like transportation. We live, disturbingly, in a time in which fidelity to democracy is no longer an article of automatic faith. Certainly, if surveys are to be believed let alone the sorts of things that we see online or on social media. And I think a big part of that here, as is true around the world, has to do with a sense of whether policy formulated by democratic means is actually delivering for people. 

And that’s part of what’s on the line in getting things as concrete, so to speak, as transportation right. The last time it was fashionable in some circles in the West, including in the United States, to talk approvingly about things like fascism, the 1930s and 1940s, what was the thing that was famously said about Mussolini? The trains ran on time. By the way, not exactly true. We can save that for a different discussion. But I think that’s very revealing. And needless to say, as other models, models dramatically less committed to liberalism and to democracy than our own, compete with ours, it is once again being said and sometimes admired of, for example, a system like that in China, that part of what they do so well is build trains, run trains, roads, highways, bridges, et cetera. 

I think if we unpack that, we will find that it sits on a somewhat flimsy foundation. But I think we actually have to do that unpacking when it comes to a thoughtful critique of the cost of some of what superficially appears to be preferred transportation and logistics and infrastructure approaches in other systems, and also interrogate our own. And ask what it is about our ways of delivering transportation, infrastructure, logistics, that really are more difficult simply because we are a liberal democracy. For example, the fact that we don’t mow down entire communities without talking to them first.  

And which of them have to do with things that we can and should do differently? Something that we’re challenging ourselves, and something that I’m challenging my team, and they’re challenging me to do every day. So I would argue, even in this heady time, that this is actually a great moment for us to weight the relationship between how governments take care of some of the most basic things that are part of our everyday lives and questions as profound as the legitimacy and trajectory of democracy itself. And for that reason, I’m very glad to be here and looking forward to our discussion. (Applause.) 

EFFRON: Secretary, thanks for that. No pun intended, but let’s dig in a little bit on the infrastructure.  

BUTTIGIEG: Very good. 

EFFRON: Your department has 250 billion (dollars) or so of funding over ten years—ports, airports, railroads, roads. Where are we in the actual process? How much is being built? How much has been spent? And how are you, as someone who is highly attentive to detail as you and I have talked about, able to keep track? You mentioned 40,000 projects. How do you actually manage it? 

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. So I would envision a bell curve. We are beginning to see at the foot of the bell curve the very first few projects that were funded through the infrastructure law that are actually done. I had the pleasure of being at a ribbon cutting at an airport in eastern Pennsylvania, that I’d seen as a construction site a year earlier, that is now serving passengers through a newly conceived security checkpoint and was accelerated in that work through the president’s infrastructure law. That, though, is the very, very, very beginning of that curve. The vast majority of the projects, those 40,000 projects and counting that I described, are somewhere in their development phase, somewhere between getting to call the mayor, the senator saying, congratulations, you got the 50 million (dollars) for this port, and actually getting to that ribbon cutting. 

And a big focus for us is how do we make sure that, as responsibly as we can, we keep that timeline nice and tight? For a good reason we go through a lot of steps to get projects done in the United States. But we cannot allow that process to get in the way of delivering. What I will say though, also, is that even before we get the benefit of the new project, before you’re driving on that new bridge, or going through that new tunnel, or using that new airport terminal, we get the benefit of the work that is being done on that project. And it will not be long before your acquaintance, your neighbor, your cousin is working on one of these infrastructure projects. In fact, now across the country so many people already are. 

So I want to be honest about the fact that when we talk about $200 billion-plus out the door already, most of that has not yet gotten us to the other side of the life of a project. But I’m also enthusiastic about the fact that each passing day more of the projects that we’re looking at have moved toward that part of the bell curve, where we’re actually talking about completion or about construction. One way of thinking about it is we spent our first year as an administration just getting the bill passed, right? Fighting—and this bears repetition—particularly, I couldn’t help but notice, that the speaker of the House, for example, I think yesterday, took time to tour an airport facility that our department funded using funds that both he and the member of Congress who was touring it with him voted against. (Laughter.) 

And I think it’s important to point this out not just in order to tweak somebody who’s from the other side, but in order to remind everybody that while it’s very hard to picture life without President Biden’s infrastructure bill today, it was far from certain that it was going to happen. Other presidents said they were going to get it done. I would say this is the one time that the last president had me fooled. I really thought he would do it. And the political obituary of the bipartisan infrastructure law was written dozens of times before we got to November of 2021. But we spent the first year getting the bill passed, and it happened. 

And then the second year, creating programs—sometimes completely novel, multibillion-dollar programs—conceived by that bipartisan infrastructure law. And so if year one was about the bill passing, and year two was about the programs launching, year three has largely been about the money moving so that increasingly we can get to the dirt flying. And I would characterize that, not to be flip, as in many ways the fun part. 

EFFRON: So remind us then, four trillion (dollars) of spending ten years from now, or now eight years from now, what will you look back on as some of the goals and say this spending has achieved, both in terms of jobs, growth, security, and in general? And reminding us why this is so important. 

BUTTIGIEG: So I’d say in brief, five things—safety, jobs, climate, equity, and innovation. And I only really care about innovation to the extent that it serves the other four goals, because it’s not an end in itself but it is very important for us to support and drive. So first of all, safety. And we need to make sure that we build and design and conceive safer systems. Some of the less glamorous grants that we’ve done, not the multibillion dollar tunnels or bridges, but six-figure grants— 

EFFRON: By the way, in New York we like Gateway. 

BUTTIGIEG: You’d better be. (Laughs.) We’re very excited about that. That’s been a big lift. And we’re proud to be supporting it. But for every Gateway, which is one of the biggest public works projects in American history, there are six-figure grants going to communities that are trying to figure out how to make their communities safer. through a program called Safe Streets for All. I would suggest that perhaps the most underreported fatal crisis in the United States right now is the crisis of roadway deaths. About 40,000 people a year. It is on par with gun violence. And, not unlike gun violence, we seem to have a much worse experience of it in the U.S. than peer nations. It is so common and so constant that we treat it like it’s normal. But it’s not. And it doesn’t have to be. So that’s an example of what does success look like years out from now? Dramatically safer streets, roads, transportation. 

Secondly, jobs. The jobs we will have created, of course, in the construction itself. And this is not just a one-off stimulus. This is a generation worth of jobs that can actually change people’s trajectories and decisions of whether to enter a good paying job field like the building trades in the first place. And then, of course, the jobs that are supported by having good transportation infrastructure, the economic rationale for having good and sometimes expensive infrastructure in the first place. Jobs. 

Climate. In our economy, the sector that contributes the most greenhouse gases is transportation. So to me, that is a challenge that we should welcome in the transportation world to aspire to be the biggest part of the solution. And whether we’re talking about individual vehicles and EVs or whether we’re talking about mode shifting so that more people take advantage of excellent public transit—part of what’s at stake in getting Gateway right, for example—or any of the any of the other technologies that we’re investing in. We know that we can have greener as well as safer transportation in the future. 

And then equity, which relates to both what we do and how we do it. What we do, in the sense that we are not going to do the things that were done in the ’50s, and the ’60s, and the ’70s that either removed or segregated communities of color through the placement of certain pieces of infrastructure. It is not for nothing that in American English we have the expression, “wrong side of the tracks.” Tells you a lot about how infrastructure divided. We’re not going to let that happen this time. And better, we’re going to be able to address some of where that happened in the past. I’ll give you one example. I-375 in Detroit wiped out a neighborhood called Paradise Valley and another called Black Bottom. It got cut off from downtown. And it cuts like a gash through the downtown.  

And what we found is, and what the state of Michigan found was, the traffic needs could be served with that elevated and turned into a boulevard that could actually connect rather than divide. And we’re funding that. We’re funding a deck over the Kensington Expressway in Buffalo, New York. Being able to meet with community leaders who’ve been trying to do that since the 1980s was one of the most moving things I’ve been able to do as secretary. So there’s what we’re doing, who were serving, eliminating transit deserts. Another thing we did in New York, the Second Avenue subway. That tunnel has been there since Mayor Lindsay and Governor Rockefeller, and they haven’t finished it. We’re finally providing the funding to do that. There’s what. 

But also, there’s the how. You know, when in past generations workers, often workers of color, and women were excluded from those good-paying construction jobs, that serve to reinforce inequalities. Where now, we can do the reverse. The proportions of the infrastructure bill are such that if we are intentional about fairness in people getting access to that work, I believe it is enough that when they write the economic history as the 2020s they’ll be able to say that part of why certain regional and racial wealth gaps began to close in the 2020s was the intention that went into fairness with opportunity around infrastructure. I really think that we can do that. And we’re working to make that a reality. 

And it takes a lot of creativity. It’s not just things like DBE programs, which are very important for us, but also identifying where the barriers are. So I was with the first lady recently in Pittsburgh. In Pittsburgh, they wisely used a section of their funding to set up a childcare facility at the construction site of the new airport terminal being built, which completely changed the ability of many working parents, and working women, to get into these jobs that they’re going to be good at, and that are going to change the economic trajectory of their family. So that’s what I’m getting at when I talk about a decade’s work in transportation, what it could mean for equity.  

So safety, jobs, climate, equity, and then innovation. Which, again, I want to emphasize is not—even though so many of us in the DOT, myself included, like to geek out on these new technologies, it’s not about it for its own sake. It’s about figuring out how new technologies, most notably automation and electrification, can serve those other things we care about so much, and making sure that they do more good than harm. 

EFFRON: So let’s turn more broadly, if we could, to domestic. You’re an acute observer of the American mood. You’ve proven to be expert at that at a national level. We have an administration that has, by any measure—certainly compared to an LBJ, FDR—passed more legislation impacting more lives than anyone. We have an economy that actually does have a tail wind, 5 percent growth, unemployment lowest in fifty years, inflation down 6 percent from the peak. Yet we have an American electorate where 75 percent of the public thinks we’re on the wrong track. What explains this sour mood? And what is the administration do to go at it? 

BUTTIGIEG: So let me tell two stories that are both true. The first is some of what you were alluding to, the extraordinary results that have been achieved under President Biden. Even just in the first two years of this administration more job creation than under any president in history, low unemployment, now rising real wages. I mean, not in my lifetime has unemployment stayed this the low for this long. To have inflation and unemployment both under 4 percent at the same time is pretty unusual, especially to be able to sustain that. Delivering things like this infrastructure bill that have escaped past presidents and congresses again and again and again. Concrete and measurable results that I think reflect on the president’s leadership and, I would add, specifically vindicate his approach to leadership, which is that as much of that as possible was done on a bipartisan basis. Not everything. We couldn’t get climate done on a bipartisan basis, but we got it done. 

We got many parts of the president’s agenda to the lower costs, like $35 insulin for seniors done. Could have done it for everybody. Congressional Republicans blocked that. But we were at least able to do it for seniors. And all of these measures are things that the American people agree with and support. And I believe that good policy is good politics, especially when you have good outcomes. And part of our job is to get that across. It’s why you see me on the road all the time reminding people of the benefits of this infrastructure package, including in places red, blue, and purple, and without regard to politics. So that’s a story that’s true. And what we have to do is go out and tell that story, because it’s not going to tell itself.  

A second story is also true, which is that America’s had a rough few years. You don’t just bounce back in one year or in five from having your society shut down by a pandemic that kills a million people in your country. That is not something that you just sort of come out of. Economic pain, including inflation, which is a central focus for the president. I was with him yesterday as we rolled out the latest steps we’re taking on supply chains, because we know that shipping costs are part of that. And part of what’s led to the recent disinflation is the attention we paid to shipping costs. But if bacon is $9, even if it’s now—even if inflation has slowed, or in some places flatlined or retreated—airline tickets, for example, cheaper than they were before the pandemic. Thanksgiving dinner, cheaper than it was before. 

But still, ultimately, we’re talking about prices that are higher than we’re used to them being. And it’s going to take a while for everyone to feel the ways in which wages have begun catching up to them. So what we have to do, I think, is point to all of the important achievements that are out there. We’re never going to be telling people, hey, you should be in a better mood than you’re in. Like you should feel good, right? Because there are all kinds of reasons, legitimate reasons, as well as reasons that I think have been amplified or turbocharged by bad faith voices on the internet and certain corners of the media, which together put people in a pretty sour mood. And we get it.  

The other thing is, when it comes to the things that that people do identify as being part of the reason why many are sour, whether we’re talking about just the atmosphere of political polarization or some of the specific economic pain that we felt in the form of prices or interest rates. By the way, interest rates, also a very important part of how you feel, right? Even if you’re—definitely anybody my age—spending as much time as we do on Zillow knows that you don’t have to be turning over your home more than every decade to have it directly affect how wealthy you feel you are every week as you’re flicking through those lovely houses.  

So what we have to do this recognize that even in those areas where people are sour, if you ask, what are we going to do about it? Are we going to cut taxes on the wealthy or are we going to focus on wages? Are we going to undermine labor unions, or are we going to support them? Are we going to concentrate on dividing people along cultural lines are we going to try to build more unity? The president’s approach is what people tend to favor. And in that sense, we’re already winning the argument, so to speak. But still have a lot of work to do to consolidate that. 

EFFRON: Good. Climate, interesting week to talk about it with COP-28 coming up, and obviously the whole issue of climate for you personally and for your department has been top of mind. You talked about green jobs, green technology, sustainability. Yet, we approach COP-28 well behind the original Paris goals. What is your level of optimism, or not, in terms of our ability to make progress and actually bend the curve by the time we get to a COP-38? 

BUTTIGIEG: We’re severely challenged. I think that’s clear. But we also have, I think, changed the trajectory of our action in a way that can ultimately mean that we change the trajectory of what is happening in our atmosphere. And what I mean by that is we’ve gone from debating over whether to do anything at all to an Inflation Reduction Act which is the most significant climate legislation enacted not just in this country, but in any country. No country, even our very green friends across the Atlantic, has gone as far as we have under President Biden’s leadership to make the concrete, physical, and financial commitments that are going to be necessary to tackle climate change, to keep the 1.5-degree target alive. And, just as importantly, to lead rather than follow other nations in doing so. 

And with that, I think comes a huge amount of momentum. Add to that the momentum being driven by young people who want us to go further and faster than we have. And I understand where they’re coming from. And also, the fact that we have, I think, finally begun to break through the old false choice of climate versus jobs, because definitely growing up in the middle—in the industrial Midwest there was a lot of climate versus jobs in the auto industry-heavy parts of the country where I come from. Except now we’re seeing climate jobs, climate-related jobs, that are going to be a huge part of how we power the future, including in places like the industrial Midwest. 

So we have a different story to tell the doesn’t point to workers or communities and make them feel like part of the problem, but rather enlists them to be part of a national project to reach the solution that is also one that they can build a better economic future around. That’s what gives me a sense of optimism around what we can do on climate. But there’s no question that we’re challenged here. I mean, I was on—every time I appear in front of a committee of the House of Representatives, I find myself in some very strange conversations. One of them had to do with whether the seasons changing was different from the climate changing.  

A lot of conversation—and look, there are reasons to talk about some big complications around the transition to electric vehicles. But in addressing some members who seemed to sincerely believe that we just keep going on the old technology forever, I felt like as if it were 2005 and I was addressing a gathering of the rotary phone convention, trying to make clear that these mobile phones weren’t going away. 

EFFRON: Actually, not a bad thing, right, I get it. 

BUTTIGIEG: And so the conversation I think in Washington really lags the conversation around the country and around the world. And my hope is that from one COP meeting to another, the conversation, the grassroots-up conversation, can consolidate in a way that leaves capitals around the country, including ours, no choice but to respond aggressively, as, again, I would argue, we have in this administration. 

EFFRON: Appreciate that. Because it is in our name, as you point out, foreign relations, let me ask you a foreign policy question. And, obviously, you spent a lot of time, even in your current job, overseas. Ukraine and Middle East. We’ve done 75 billion (dollars) of funding for Ukraine. We have $105 billion security bill trying to get done this week for Israel and Ukraine. On Ukraine, you have of Republican opposition. On the Israel piece, factions of the Democratic Party in opposition. Does it get done? How do you get it done? And does the administration maintain its leadership on both issues? 

BUTTIGIEG: I think it will get done. I think it has to get done. And I think it’s important for a country, and any administration, and any Congress to demonstrate that it can handle multiple things at a time. I was in Ukraine two or three weeks ago. Met with President Zelensky, met with my counterpart, who is also the deputy prime minister and is overseeing restoration. And nothing could be more inspiring than coming from here, where you’re trying to—even under, in many ways, historically great conditions—you’re trying to build out the next generation of infrastructure. And to go to Ukraine and meet with the people operating the railway and people guiding their infrastructure policy, who are already conceiving what a better, more nimble, and more internationally interconnected infrastructure could look like, while it is still being blown up, that’s the level of commitment and vision they have. Handling the immediate response to Russian aggression and thinking about it in terms of what the next twenty, fifty years ought to look like. 

If they can do that we can figure out how to support them. And to date, we have. And I think we’ll continue to, because the other thing that is so important here is the alignment of our interests with our values. And in those terms, an investment in Ukraine and an investment in defeating that kind of Russian aggression is an investment in our own security, that is also consistent with our values. Likewise, we have obviously a complex, nuanced relationship with the Middle East, but one where we have been at our best when we are rooted in the convergence of our interests and our values. 

Now, I think a lot of folks at home are asking, OK, if we’re—if it’s taking everything you got to fix this airport in my backyard or to do this bridge, why are we doing all that stuff over there? I think the answer, as it has so often been, is that American security, including whether people from around here have to go over there, is implicated in whether we stop this kind of aggression and whether we are doing the right thing by our friends and partners and allies in the Middle East or anywhere else in the world. And that’s a message that I think, frankly, we haven’t done enough to articulate outside of foreign policy circles, outside of any policy circles, and just back at home just as aggressively as I would articulate the importance of our infrastructure policy or what we’re doing in the auto industry. 

EFFRON: So last one before I turn it over to our members. Eighteen months from now, what does success look like in Ukraine for us? Has that goal changed at all? And then in Israel and the Middle East, what is—I don’t want to use the word “success,” but stability look like in eighteen months? 

BUTTIGIEG: Well, as we know, stability has been such an amorphous and difficult—even when we thought we were seeing it—has been such an amorphous and difficult target in the Middle East. But obviously the protection of civilian life as something that is truly being lived out in every direction, and security for the Israeli people. And as the president—the administration, I think, has importantly articulated, an acknowledgment that wherever we are eighteen months from now, it’s not just going back to where we were before October 7th. That for neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian people can a simple return to the conditions that prevailed with the appearance of calm, some would even have said stability, is acceptable. 

For Ukraine, I think that ultimately, of course, the objectives are articulated and decided by those who are fighting in that conflict. But our objective is to be there with our friends and to be with them through to success as they face that kind of aggression. Because we know that that kind of aggression will not stop there if it is not stopped there. 

EFFRON: Thank you. Let me—OK, a lot of hands up. I didn’t even say let’s see hands. Identify yourself, please, and your organization. Thank you very much. Please. 

Q: Thank you. Tom Petri. A retired member of Congress. 

I wonder if you could—safety, important—if you could talk about the air traffic control, how we seem to have an increasing number of close calls. We’ve had a mixed bag with NextGen. The Canadians seem to have done a much better job of modernizing their system. 

BUTTIGIEG: What was the last part? Sorry. Oh, the Canadians, yeah, OK. 

So this is the top priority for—in aviation, and certainly for our new FAA administrator, Michael Whitaker. And, first of all, safety is the reason—it’s the ultimate reason why our department exists. And it’s certainly the top priority of the FAA. And the first thing to consider is how extraordinary the safety record of U.S. aviation is. As I mentioned earlier, we lose 40,000 people, so about the equivalent of a 737 crashing, every day on our roads. We’ve gone more than a decade without a fatal airliner crash. And that didn’t just happen. That happened because decisions were made, tough decisions, around resources and around regulation to establish an incredibly high standard of aviation safety. 

And I would add that the complexity of our airspace is totally unique. I talk to our Canadian partners a lot, and I appreciate them a lot. But I would say there’s no real comparison in terms of the complexity of the challenge and managing our space to theirs or almost any other in the world. And that airspace is getting busier, more crowded, more complicated. We have new entrants, especially when it comes to UAS, unmanned aerial systems, that cannot be managed in terms of—there’s too many of them for them to be managed the way that we do crewed aircraft. Add to that the fact that we see a gap between the number of controllers we have and the number of controllers that we ought to have. 

Now the answer, at risk of sounding simplistic, is to get more controllers. And that’s what we’re doing. Including being creative about how we get everybody qualified to those same high standards. The administrator has been clear correctly, we’re not going to lower any standards. We do need to make sure more people are given an opportunity to qualify and to train. And being an air traffic controller is not the kind of job where you just generically become an air traffic controller and you can go sit in any station and do it. It’s like being a harbor pilot. It might take a year or more just to qualify in the specific geography you’re going to work in.  

And, frankly, we need help from Congress. We need your former colleagues to be there for us on what I think and hope is a bipartisan or nonpartisan issue, which is adequately resourcing the people and the technology. You mentioned NextGen, which was a program to update the technologies that our traffic relies on. In some—many of those objectives have been met, but some things are still years away from where they ought to be. Which is why we can’t short modernization right now, as some voices in Congress are suggesting that we do. We are going to need to make the investments in incredibly, wildly complex systems to get them ready for a complicated future, so that those controllers can be as effective as possible. 

The other thing that has happened is that in the absence of fatal crashes, instead of doing what you would do, which is look at the most recent crash and concentrate your efforts on adding that to your knowledge about safety, we need to look at the most recent situation where anything came close to a crash. And we track those to a level of detail that I think is maybe not widely understood in the public. The are a number of what are called runway incursions, can be about a thousand a year. But, to be clear, that might mean that an aircraft came within half a mile of another aircraft, but it shouldn’t have and we want to know why and run it down. All the way through to the number of cases which are in the single digits, but they need to be zero, where things were much closer than that. 

That is why there are new safety mechanisms being built within the FAA, and a renewed focus on all of the different players in the system. Because it’s not just that there’s been a wave of pilot error and nothing else that explains close calls, or a wave of controller error, and that is the single explanation. Across the system, especially during that rebound into the high volume from COVID, we’ve seen issues. And so we need to make sure that the response is across the system too. Which is why I’m talking about technology, policy, and personnel. 

EFFRON: Thanks. Sam, why don’t we go to one of our remote members. 

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Beth Keck. 

Q: Thank you very much. And just confirm you can hear me? 


BUTTIGIEG: Sounds good. 

Q: Good. Excellent. My background is that I had the privilege of working for the Federal Aviation Administration for a decade, and five years of that as your North Asia senior representative based in Beijing in the late ’90s, when China was just beginning to want to put in place a safe, robust system. And I’ve been, since that time, watching what’s going on. And, you know, with the certification of the 737, the FAA lost in prestige and credibility. Not only did Boeing suffer, but the agency that was certifying as well. And as a result of that, by then China, of course, had bought a bunch of the 737 Maxes. And instead of waiting for the lead certification authority to ground the aircraft or to take, you know, that serious action, they grounded the fleet first in terms of a global action. This altered our global aviation certification norms, where it would be the lead certification agency taking that. 

EFFRON: So what’s the question? The question, please. 

Q: And the question is, what has been done to address restoring FAA’s regulatory backbone, its talent, and then, of course, rebuild its global credibility and confidence in the system? 

EFFRON: Thank you. 

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the beginning of it that we cannot and do not take the gold standard that the U.S. has enjoyed for decades in aviation safety for granted. I think what happened with the Max was a wake-up call. And the scrutiny, public and congressional, that followed that led to reforms that are part of what is needed in order to maintain that gold standard. And this is another area that our new Administrator Michael Whitaker has made clear is going to be central, which is establishing a culture which is absolutely unmovable on questions of safety. 

Now, we can be and must be original, imaginative, thoughtful, nimble in how to meet that extremely high standard. But the standard can’t shift. If anything, we believe it needs to go even higher. A difficult thing to establish in the absence of crashes over many years, but the near misses tell us part of where we need to go operationally. And then, to what the question was about, so does the certification process and the reforms that have happened to it. I believe that the unprecedented level of attention to that process is needed, is timely. And I can tell you with a lot of veterans of the congressional oversight from that period now in our department helping to guide that work, that we take it very seriously from the inside out. 

EFFRON: Thank you. Yes. Actually, right next to you, and then to you. Yes, please. Thank you very much. 

Q: Thanks, Blair. Paula Stern.  

I chaired the U.S. International Trade Commission. I was there for ten years and made sure that we put transportation questions into every investigation, so as to pinpoint, what were the sources of competitiveness or not, with imports for American industries and agriculture. My question is, based on the fact that we do not have our manufacturers—giving them an option of shipping to customers within the United States using our ports, using our maritime system, using our rivers and the oceans that surround us.  

Of course, the question is the Jones Act, which dates from early-1900s. It’s always been a hot button, but I think I’d like to hear what the supply chain experts and maritime experts are thinking going forward as we try to rebuild our manufacturing capabilities here at home, and to supply our agricultural folks with the fertilizer and everything else where imports can go port to port to port, and drop their goods for American consumers. But our American manufacturers cannot. Thank you. 

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for the question. And it’s also very literally close to home, coming from where I come from. Let me start by stating that our commitment to the Jones Act is based, among other things, on our awareness that there’s a relationship between our national security, our economic security, and our maritime capacity. And whether we’re looking at the size of our merchant marine or the size of our U.S. flagged fleet, it is smaller than any country, I think, would want it to be. And we know that it would—that would be that much more so were it not for the provisions of the Jones Act. 

What you raise is also really important, which is the overlooked nature of maritime shipping, not just in the context of the big container ship making its way from China or Vietnam to one of those West Coast ports that everybody was looking at on TV a couple years ago, but the export side and riverine travel. I’ll tell you, one of the most rewarding visits I did to a grant—again, something that is less than 1 percent of the scale of the Hudson Tunnel or the Gateway project but meant everything to the community that I visited—is in Tell City, Indiana. This is in southern Indiana across the Ohio River from Kentucky. It’s a one-crane operation, and that crane was floating. Which meant, when the river was too high or was too low, couldn’t operate at capacity. And part of why it mattered so much is that the pig iron that comes on the barge traffic that goes on the Ohio River is what feeds the foundry up the hill that accounts for a thousand jobs outside of Tell City, which has 7,000 people total. Incredibly important for them. 

And for about a million and a half dollars, we were able to fund—out of the very same program we’re using to build a couple of miles of new on-dock rail in Long Beach so they can get those containers moving—we were able to build them a permanent facility where the crane is no longer floating. Transformative in terms of what they can do in this community. I met with the port authority. And the Port Authority of Perry County, Indiana does not look exactly like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. (Laughter.) These are volunteers who conduct their business, perhaps over coffee at Julie’s diner, but do everything that they can to maintain that piece of infrastructure. 

All of which is to say that our riverine traffic and our ability to integrate intermodally what we’re doing with trucks, what we’re doing with trains, and what we’re doing with the maritime piece, is something we need to reinforce, do better at, and do more of. And a big part of how we can do that now is through the investments we’re making in physical infrastructure. The other thing that I would emphasize that I also think was encoded in your question, that is so important, is that exports got overlooked during the supply chain crisis, at least I think in the public conversation. Some of the best things we were able to do were support—partnering with USDA and Secretary Vilsack—things like a pop-up container—or, a pop-up yard outside of Oakland that helped to make sure the backlog didn’t prevent goods from moving. 

And measures like that, creative short-term measures because of circumstances that are forced on us, but more importantly good long-term measures in terms of our physical infrastructure and our policy, are going to be needed so that we’re really getting the most out of our already overtaxed goods movement systems. And there’s no getting that right—I would add also from a climate perspective—without making more and better use of the floating side of those supply chains. 

EFFRON: That’s great, thank you. Yes. 

Q: Thank you for setting that up accidentally. (Laughs.) Rob Quartel. I was U.S. federal maritime commissioner. 

And you said something early on about transportation policy needed to be right, and some things are built on a flimsy foundation, as is your answer on the Jones Act. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, 103 years old, says that the primary purpose is to carry—have a merchant fleet capable of carrying the vast bulk of American merchant cargo and serving as an auxiliary and time of war. And shipbuilding and all the rest comes with that. Of the seven top shipyards capable of building a deep draft ship, only one has a vessel in it. It’s the WTV for Dominion, which is 30 percent over budget and two years behind. 

We are down to ninety-two ships. The world fleet is about ten thousand under U.S. flag, of which only seventy-one are capable of being used for the military, most of which are tankers.  

EFFRON: Is there a question? 

Q: I’m getting to it. So and we are about 15 percent short of enough men because we don’t have ships to do transport during a war. So it undermines national security. So what can you do to reverse the kind of thinking, using your McKinsey background in analytics for example, of the facts, not the myth. And I’d like fifteen minutes with you alone later to talk about it. (Laughter.) 

EFFRON: We’ll arrange that later. You’re up. 

BUTTIGIEG: Look, the facts are that we, as you note, do not have the shipbuilding capacity or the U.S. flag capacity that we want or that we ought to have. I just don’t think blowing up the piece that’s holding what little we do have is a good idea. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re satisfied with the status quo. I’m not. I think there have been measures that have helped. I think being creative within the parameters that we’re in about how to make the most of something like the Tanker Security Program or the reserve fleet that we operate—which, by the way, has come into play even in recent operations, has been helpful. I think that our shipbuilding—I feel pretty good about the ships we’re buying for our academies and the job that’s been done for them. 

But there’s a clear relationship between what needs to be done for our shipbuilding capacity and what we’re going to need in—if we really want to restore American sea power to what we knew it to be in the 20th century. And I would add that no Department of Transportation budget, even our historically large one, is enough to carry all of that. Which is why if you look to some of what had been done, certainly in the Cold War era, to—perhaps things that you were involved with as well—to make sure that we had DOD resources came into play to support shipbuilding and make sure that was possible. I’m not here to defend the status quo. But I’m also not going to suggest that we can walk away from what may be the only reason that we have U.S. flagged ships at all. 

EFFRON: Great. Questions the room? So let me ask you—sir, yes. 

Q: Hi. I’m Marc Levinson. I formerly managed the transportation analysis of the Congressional Research Service. 

You’d mentioned earlier that the department supported the Second Avenue subway project in New York. You didn’t mention that that project is costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 billion for a mile and a half of subway. There’s a lot of evidence that U.S. rail transit construction costs are a multiple of costs in other countries. What is it that you can do in DOT to resolve that, so we can actually get more transit built? 

BUTTIGIEG: It’s a great question. And it’s one of the central questions that that we spend a lot of time with, especially because it’s not just that it costs us more than it does in, let’s say, China. But it does, compared to European countries, that that make it clear that this is not simply a matter of labor and environmental standards, right? It’s not just that that we are paying the price for our commitments to certain labor and environmental standards.  

And I have to say, I’ve found myself asking the question too, especially when you’re in the tunnel. I went down in there with the governor. The tunnel’s there. It’s been there this whole time. It’s a pretty good tunnel. And one would think that the hardest part about building a subway is digging the tunnel. It’s, you know, more complicated than that. But intuitively, you wonder if that part’s already done, how is this level of expense associated with fulfilling the promise that was made to the residents of that part of Harlem fifty years ago, and really seventy years ago when they tore out the L, before they even got to digging the subway, that they were going to be served. 

And of course, there are all kinds of reasons—some easier to swallow than others; part of which have to do with the acquisitions that are involved in stations and ventilations in one of the most complex, densely populated and built places in the world; and some of which are less satisfying, that have to do with the amount of time that we allow these things to take, sometimes require them to take but sometimes allow them to take. We have not optimized for speed in transportation construction and policies or practices in the United States. If we ever did, we certainly haven’t lately. And if you do, you make different choices.  

Recently, I received my German counterpart, Minister Wissing, who’s overseeing a massive and ambitious expansion in rail capacity in Germany. Something like a 20 percent increase that they know that they need. And part of what they’re going to accept in order to get that done quickly is a period of several months where many important parts of their rail network will just be down. I don’t think that would be tolerated in the U.S. context, at least in some of the places where we’re making a lot of investments. Obviously, this isn’t true of the Second Avenue subway, which doesn’t operate today. But in some of the other places where similar cost disparities are visible, it’s very clear that part of what they have to deal with is the fact that they need to be up and running. If it’s the FAA, it’s 24/7/365. If it’s rail infrastructure, maybe you have a construction window, but if you get through all of the preparation of things that are needed to get something done, even if notionally on paper you have between, let’s say, midnight and five in the morning, you have even less than that in actual practice. 

That’s a choice. And it’s a choice that I think every project sponsor needs to navigate with the community that it serves in the users that it serves, and that we want to help them navigate creatively. That’s just one example. We’re looking at the amount of time it takes to get from an award announcement—congratulations, Newport, you got the new bridge—to the grant agreement, just to sign it, let alone get the money moving. That historically has taken a year or more. That helps explain the cost disparity. Part of it is pinch points in workforce supply chain. And we’re aggressively working that, knowledgeable that the supply side—not in the Reaganesque sense necessarily but in what Secretary Yellen talks about as kind of a modern supply-side economy, is attentive to. 

Because we know, a bit counterintuitively, that that the right kind of investments in supply-side can help mitigate cost overruns and inflation at a macro level, but also in particular regions. So this question deserves, I think, more focused attention than it has gotten. And we’re trying to bring that to the DOT. We’ve even established a center to look specifically at these delivery questions in the Volpe Center, which is co-located with MIT, which is part of this.  

But I think we’re—honestly, we’re better at researching the durability of a particular asphalt aggregate—which by the way, is actually one of my favorite subjects—(laughter)—but we’re better researching that than how the hell does it cost more than a billion dollars a mile to build a subway when the tunnel is already there? And so we need to continue, I think, using the insights that we’ve gathered but also framing the hard choices that are made, many of which are not technical or, in the final analysis, financial. They are political. And see what our project sponsors are willing to do and what they’re willing to risk working with us in order to get things done faster, better, cheaper. 

EFFRON: Thank you. Sam, time for one more. So let’s go remote. 

OPERATOR: We will take our next question from Susan Levine. 

Q: Thank you.  

You mentioned that you focus on the unglamorous aspects of infrastructure. 

EFFRON: Asphalt’s glamorous. (Laughter.) 

Q: Well, airplane bathrooms may not be. And I was so happy when you came out and said that you are going to make bathrooms accessible to people with disabilities. But you said it would take ten years to do that. And if going to the bathroom is, as you say, a human right, why will it take ten years? 

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. Look, we want to—we want to beat that, in terms of the state of the art out there. And we have another goal that I know will take even longer and that I’m even more impatient about, but I understand why it will take longer, which is that people ought to be able to take their own wheelchairs on board. And I think we can get there. We’ve done it on other modes of transportation. We know it’s going to take a lot of research to make sure that it’s safe, but we’re starting that journey now. 

There are different pathways for retrofit of aircraft than for what can be required of new aircraft. Right now, these accessibility rules apply in widebodies, but not to single-aisle aircraft. And what we’re seeing, of course, is even longer haul—I mean, even transatlantic flights are now sometimes being served single-aisle. So we need to make sure we expand this. It’s part of a broader project to make sure that accessibility is taken seriously on aircraft. If you ever talked to a friend or colleague who is a wheelchair user who flies, they will either describe dehydrating themselves so that they don’t have to risk it with an inaccessible bathroom onboard, not flying at all because there’s just no way to confidently do it, and/or the experience of having their chair lost, damaged, or destroyed. And it’s often not the case that that can just quickly be dealt with. So we’re doing a new regulatory approach to wheelchairs. 

And I think the disability community—which, by the way, is the largest community protected by civil rights legislation in the U.S. And uniquely one into which every one of us may age, if we’re not already a member of that community. Some fifty, however many years, it has been since the ADA deserves better. And whether it’s the improvements to the subway stations that we’re funding through what’s in the infrastructure package that was championed by Senator Duckworth, or whether it’s these measures that we’re taking on aircraft—which do take a long time to get the new designs established, certified. And, again, there’s a different pathway for retrofits as there is for new aircraft. But I believe we will be able to say, looking back on this term, that we’ve done more with the years that we have than has ever been possible. And we know there’s a much, much longer way to go. 

EFFRON: You were great to be with us. Mr. Secretary. Thank you. Members, thank you, members remotely. (Applause.) Thanks so much. 

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks for having me. 


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