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US Transportation Sec. to Focus on Equity, Sustainability

At this week’s CityLab conference, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg outlined some of the policy directions he wants his agency to take over the next four years, balancing the need for maintenance with innovation.

by / March 3, 2021
A new electric commuter bus makes its way through Sacramento, Calif. Skip Descant/ Government Technology

As tempting as it is to focus the efforts of the nation’s chief transportation organization on advanced transportation ideas like high-speed trains or electric vehicles, the country’s roads and bridges likely need the most attention. 

“I want to emphasize that a lot of what we’ve got to do is dealing with a maintenance backlog,” said Pete Buttigieg, secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation. “‘Fix it first’ I think is going to be a very important mantra for us. It doesn’t always have the same sizzle as adding something new. But the truth is, we’ve got to be doing both.” 

Buttigieg was interviewed Tuesday by Laura Bliss, a reporter with Bloomberg CityLab at the CityLab annual conference. His role as the new transportation secretary has been widely heralded by urbanists and others in transportation for his dedication to innovation and commitment to bringing more resources and attention to all of the other forms of transportation beyond just cars.

During a recent panel discussion organized by CoMotion LIVE, Paul Salama, co-founder and COO of road-pricing startup ClearRoad, suggested the idea of merging transit systems across regions where a number of providers now exist, in an effort to reduce costs and smooth the user experience. 

“And that’s the kind of stuff that can only happen with great leadership, and at a high level,” said Salama, adding Buttigieg should bring a “comprehensive vision” to transportation across the nation. 

Even though Buttigieg acknowledged a need to focus on a growing backlog of maintenance for existing transportation infrastructure, he also affirmed a need to plan for a more innovative and sustainable future, touting the benefits of EVs and passenger rail projects, as he spoke of “adding resources that could make a difference.”

The transportation secretary pointed to the dearth of dedicated funding for passenger rail, in stark contrast to funding for roads. 

“There isn’t such a thing, as of today, for railways, which is, I think, one of the reasons Americans are being asked to settle for less when it comes to passenger rail,” Buttigieg remarked.

It’s largely assumed the new administration will view transportation through a more refined sustainability lens — understanding this sector accounts for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gases emissions in the U.S. — but that it will also give a more careful look to how equity becomes a part of the planning process.

When Buttigieg spoke of the benefits of zero-emission buses, he remarked on their ability to support environmental justice goals, “since so often, our biggest and busiest highways go through Black and brown communities that are known to have higher rates of asthma.” 

“My point is that all of these things are integrated,” he added.  

“We’re definitely listening to the communities that have been the most intentional about the equity and climate implications of their choices. And that’s happening in so many different ways,” said Buttigieg. 

Skip Descant Staff Writer

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.

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