Secretary Pete: Transportation Should Be a Climate Agency

New leadership under Pete Buttigieg at the Department of Transportation is an opportunity for a cleaner, more equitable transportation system.

President Joe Biden’s decision to nominate Pete Buttigieg to lead the Department of Transportation may be among the most consequential of his presidency. His experience as a mid-sized-city executive, combined with the experience of his newly chosen deputy Polly Trottenberg as big-city transportation leader, create high hopes for a new agenda for moving people and goods that puts cities and states on better footing to tackle daunting national challenges.

Secretary Buttigieg will inherit multiple simultaneous crises. He will be tasked with guiding transportation policy at a moment when transportation makes up the largest share of the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions and is linked to some of the worst health consequences for communities. Buttigieg will be at the helm of the federal effort to support transit agencies stuck in an impossible budgetary situation and historically low ridership in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic. He will also be a leader in the incoming Biden administration’s goal to “build back better” and upgrade and modernize the country’s infrastructure.

Despite these challenges, “Secretary Mayor Pete,” as some Twitter users have dubbed him, will have the opportunity leave a monumental legacy  for our transportation system. That success will depend on Buttigieg embracing scientifically grounded principles and rebuilding our transportation system to be more sustainable, equitable, and resilient. At the event marking his nomination, Buttigieg agreed: “This administration can deliver policies and resources in transportation that will create jobs, rise to the climate challenge, and equitably serve all Americans.” Here’s what that should look like.

Public Transit

The bulk of transportation emissions come from passenger cars and trucks and in turn much of that is from commutes and other trips within urban areas. Replacing solo car rides with shared public transit can significantly reduce the total miles traveled by vehicles, slashing emissions and creating safer neighborhoods. As Secretary, Buttigieg should follow through on Biden’s commitment to provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality public transit and low-carbon transportation options. President Biden has already made his support of transit known by proposing $20 billion in emergency relief for transit agencies in his American Rescue Plan.  

Again, the Secretary should work to ensure these investments prioritize communities most harmed by the car-dominated development of the last century. Buttigieg seems to already be aware of this challenge, tweeting:

New transit projects should also be focused on maximizing climate impact by procuring electric transit vehicles and utilizing existing infrastructure where possible.

At the announcement of his nomination, Buttigieg also spoke of fond memories aboard Amtrak trains, though he joked “in this administration, I will at best be the second biggest train enthusiast.” As Secretary, Buttigieg will have a strong hand in guiding a renewed focus on intercity rail. As his tenure begins, Amtrak will still be dealing with the dramatic loss in revenue caused by the coronavirus. Buttigieg should make restoring lost service a priority and should reject any attempts to impose austerity on the service.

Electric Vehicles

Transitioning from cars and trucks with internal combustion engines to battery-powered electric vehicles will reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. As electric passenger vehicles become more widely adopted, we will need a national network of charging stations to keep the country moving, similar to today’s network of gas stations.

President Biden campaigned on a vision of installing 500,000 new electric vehicle charging stations by 2030. As a candidate, Buttigieg’s budget-driven plan called for spending $6 billion on charging infrastructure, a similar target. Since his nomination, Buttigieg tweeted:

This ambitious target will require a concerted effort from the Secretary. Buttigieg should work to ensure that the development of a charging network is done in an environmentally responsible way, following all applicable regulations, while also moving forward quickly to meet growing demand. Buttigieg can also show leadership by guaranteeing that early rollout of EV infrastructure benefits communities most impacted by air pollution today.

Connect Communities through Biking and Walking

Though other parts of the Biden administration will be working quickly to create a green electric grid powered by renewable energy, the fact remains the fleet conversion to electric vehicles and corollary carbon emissions reductions may take many years. This is why it’s important to couple higher performance standards for clean vehicles with performance standards for federally funded state and metropolitan transportation plans. And these plans can and should include more infrastructure for the best zero-carbon transportation choices available to most people: walking and biking. Luckily, deploying such modest investments is a relatively cheap and fast process.

As mayor, Buttigieg knows this firsthand. He significantly expanded the bike lane network in South Bend, a fact he’s touted several times since his nomination. His campaign plan called for doubling funding for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP), the program behind most biking and walking infrastructure. As Secretary, Buttigieg will also have the ability to ensure that all new projects include safe accommodations for walking and biking, as well as for people with mobility impairments.

BUILD Grants

Finally, as Secretary, Buttigieg will set criteria for DOT programs including “Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development Transportation Discretionary Grants” or BUILD grants. These discretionary, competitive grants are dearly sought by state and metropolitan authorities, and the Secretary can leverage the selection to guide development in a more equitable and sustainable direction.

First, DOT should require that new projects prioritize low or no carbon modes. DOT should also use BUILD grants to support more equitable transportation by investing in travel options that don’t require car ownership and that accommodate a variety of user needs. In selecting projects, DOT can also prioritize bringing funding to urban neighborhoods and rural areas with high rates of poverty, unemployment, or environmental degradation. 

Transformative change will of course be easier with the cooperation of Congress, a factor beyond the control of any cabinet member. But as Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg will have wide authority to change our transportation system, and therefore our climate outlook, for the better.

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