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The infrastructure plan ‘means routing new dollars through old plumbing’: Transportation Sec. Buttigieg

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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg addresses the infrastructure solutions his department hopes to implement following President Biden's signing of the infrastructure bill, along with the problems that supply chain disruptions, bottlenecks, and inflation pose for these strategies.

Video transcript

JULIE HYMAN: President Biden is set to sign the infrastructure bill today. An ambitious package, it has a lot of different things on the agenda. It aimed at improving broad swath of infrastructure in this country. Pete Buttigieg is joining us now, of course, Transportation Secretary of the United States. Secretary, thank you so much for being here. I want to start actually with a process question because as I mentioned, this is a big package. It affects roads and bridges and public transportation. Just practically, how do you go about tackling this? How do you decide what to prioritize? How do you bid out the projects? How does all of this actually get done?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Right, so the moment the ink is dry from the president's pen later today, we're going to be getting to work, making sure that the American people see the most possible impact from these dollars. That means making sure that they go to worthy projects, making sure there's imagination and creativity in how to apply them in ways that are going to benefit the country for the next 50 years and beyond, and of course, a high degree of accountability and responsibility, because these are a lot of taxpayer dollars.

In practical terms, part of that means routing new through old plumbing, so to speak. So we already have excellent, well-established programs and machinery, so to speak, from formulas to discretionary programs that lay out what we, as a department, are looking for when communities say, hey, I want to make a safety improvement to the streets in this city. Or, you know, we have a need to make an improvement at this airport. We have mechanisms for doing that. Now we have much more to do it with.

So, for example, on a recent discretionary grant program, where we have to select proposals from around the country, there were about $1 billion of funding to work with and about $10 billion of compelling applications. That's going to increase a great deal and allow us to flow more dollars through those existing programs. But we also have to stand up whole, new programs, dozens of them, in order to meet new policy objectives set out by this infrastructure deal. And that's where our department is going to be gearing up, staffing up, and getting ready for the months and years ahead.

JULIE HYMAN: And Secretary, I think there's broad agreement that infrastructure needs to be fixed, right? As Americans, we encounter much of this every day. In the actual process of it, it can be frustrating for people when the road that you want to drive on is being repaired. So as this is ongoing, what's the sort of message that you want to get out to the American people about this process and whether it is going to be challenging for people?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, what I would say is when you see that something is coming offline to be improved, whether there's a lane closure while a road's being fixed or a bridge has to be out while it's going through a deep rehabilitation to make it safe for the future, or an airport terminal is not available because they're making it bigger and better, just remember that on the other side of that is going to be the world class infrastructure that America needs and deserves.

It's never fun going through those disruptions, but I'll tell you, a disruption because we're underway on a planned project to improve something is so much better than a disruption because something fell apart because we didn't get to it in time. You know, not long ago, I was out in the Mississippi River in Memphis where this bridge straddling Memphis and Arkansas went out of service abruptly on an emergency basis. And you could see a crack, almost a movie style crack in a giant piece of steel holding that together. Those are the kinds of closures we never want to see again, which is why we're going to have more of the kinds of closures associated with a planned improvement to make things better, stronger, safer, cleaner for the long run.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mr. Secretary, consumers, US consumers are really feeling a good bit of inflation right now. Can you assure them that this package is not likely to add onto those inflationary pressures?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, I think a really important thing to recognize is that some of those price pressures come from the fact that our goods are moving across infrastructure that has been neglected for a long time. And that's part of the story of why we're seeing these supply chain issues. It's not the whole story, but it's definitely part of it.

But this is also why we've got to succeed with the second part of the president's economic agenda. When you look at the cost of housing, the cost of childcare, the cost of prescription drugs, this bill will do something about each of those that Americans will feel directly and immediately, really important and really timely in this season of price pressure and increased costs.

BRIAN SOZZI: Do you see the supply chain bottlenecks ending anytime soon?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, we're definitely seeing some immediate impacts of the immediate steps that we've taken. But the most honest answer I can give you is that as long as the pandemic continues, there will be disruptions. We have intricately connected global networks. When a shoe factory shuts down in Vietnam because of a COVID outbreak or when a single case leads to a section of a massive container terminal in China, for example, closing, or when there's an issue here affecting truck drivers 1,000 miles inland from a port, any one of those things could be something that you will see at a port on the West Coast or at a shopping mall near you.

But what I will say is that we've seen private sector operators of these supply chains stepping up in remarkable ways to get goods to the shelves, to make sure that they're being creative, using our existing resources 24/7. It's making an impact, and we're going to continue driving that short and medium term change, while for the long term, we make sure we have better ports, better rails, better roads.

So that our core infrastructure that all of those private sector processes play out on is more resilient for whatever challenge of the future could come, whether it's another pandemic, God forbid, whether it is the extreme weather that we're seeing more and more of in this era of climate change, or something haven't even thought of. By definition, we will be more prepared for those challenges when we have more resilient infrastructure. And that's exactly what we're ready to deliver, thanks to this historic bill.

JULIE HYMAN: Now, when you talk about the private sector and the talks that you've been having with them, I mean, how far do you think, from a federal government perspective and a policy perspective-- do you feel limited, to some extent? In other words, you can't raise wages or get truckers back on the road if they are not able to hire people, for example. So, I mean, what more do you think can be done right now that is not being done?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, realistically, we are talking about a lot of private actors here. I mean, think about what it takes to get a project-- a product to the shelf so you can buy it, right? It's the manufacturer, it's the shippers, it's the store. Nobody wants a government-owned and operated grocery store or retail shop or, for that matter, factory.

But the government does have a role here. We've brought players together to identify steps to make better use of the capacity that we have, even on an issue like trucking, which, again, as you've mentioned, is, of course, private sector and rightly so. We can take steps working with states to make it easier to issue those CDLs, Commercial Driver's Licenses, so more people can go into the field.

And steps like that are, we think, making a difference. Our ports envoy, John Porcari, has been working with some of the players at our ports to do things like send sweeper ships around that pick up the empty containers that are getting in the way of the full ones. Those little steps add up, and we do see an important role for this administration, even while a lot of these issues are business issues that the markets in the medium to long run need to resolve.

JULIE HYMAN: I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about electric vehicles and autonomous driving for a moment, which has been a very hot topic on our end from the market perspective, certainly, and also, as part of this infrastructure package, in terms of beefing up the national charging network. When we think about supply chains as well, and just the whole evolution of electric vehicles, you know, I know you're somebody who sort of is a big thinker, right? Where do you think we are five years from now, 10 years from now, in terms of how important that sector of the economy is going to be?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: It's going to be more and more important each passing year. Look, it's very clear that the future of the automotive sector is electric. The real things that are in question, I think, are three things. One, does it happen fast enough to meet our climate goals? Two, does it happen with American workers and American companies on American soil as much as possible and create as much opportunity as we can here at home? And third, is it available to everybody?

Now, if you think about it, the Americans who stand to gain the most by going electric, saving all that gas money, are often low income Americans who have a hard time getting that sticker price put together for one of those electric vehicles that could save them so much if they could afford it. That's why the Build Back Better agenda, the piece still working its way through Congress, includes discounts of up to $12,500 to help a family acquire one of those vehicles, while the bill we just passed gives us the funds to build up that charging network so that nobody has to think twice about whether they can get to where they need to be.

We see this accelerating. We see this really defining the industry in so many ways. Again, the momentum is already there. But those issues of affordability and having it happen here in America, that doesn't happen on its own. That's why it's a policy priority, too.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mr. Secretary, I think we can both agree, we are headed to an electric car future, no doubt about it. But for right now, Tesla is the dominant player here. Do you think, just given the crashes we have seen with regards to their autonomous technology, are those cars safe to be on the road? And then, secondarily, are you surprised that they have not issued a recall on this full self-driving technology?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, let me say this. Any time that we have a report of a safety issue, that's taken very seriously at the federal level and by the NHTSA, the Highway Traffic Safety Administration within my department. And that's true in terms of requesting and requiring information from automakers. And also, we have a means to get information from individuals drivers who have had issues. We have got to make sure that these technologies, as they roll out, are safe. And we have to have clear communication with drivers that no matter how sophisticated or smart your car is, any car that you're acquiring on a market today in the US requires that you be behind the wheel and paying attention.

Now, there's tremendous upside potential with autonomous driving and with driver assistance. Look, we just got some tough numbers in terms of roadway deaths in this country, more than 30,000 people a year losing their lives. So the status quo is clearly unacceptable. To put it bluntly, human drivers don't have the best track record. But it's not automatic, so to speak, that compute systems are going to do better, unless we have the right kind of regulation and the absolute highest expectations. That's what our department is going to be focused on. And we're going to hold companies to a very high standard.

JULIE HYMAN: And Mr. Secretary, on that front, do you think that Tesla has been doing-- obviously, as you said, the law is that a human driver has to be there. Do you think Tesla has done a good enough job communicating the abilities of its existing system and that people still really need to be paying attention?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: I do think it's very important to get that out, that you need to be paying attention with your hands on the wheel. And these are driver assistance technologies, not driver replacement technologies. That may change someday, but it hasn't yet. And it's really crucial certainly for manufacturers to be transparent about that, but also for drivers to understand that. And we're going to continue as a safety agency making sure that any issues with that technology that we're now requiring be reported in on a new basis, that those are flagged right away, reviewed, and if necessary, we will step in on a regulatory basis to assure everyone's safety.

JULIE HYMAN: And finally, Mr. Secretary, if I may, we've been paying attention to some tweets lately, whether it's Joe Lonsdale commenting on your paternity leave or Elon Musk himself firing back at Senator Sanders. And obviously, as a public servant, you have to have a thick skin. But you're also, in many cases, working with these folks in various capacities on various measures. How do you kind of get that done when there is, at times, this publicly acrimonious rhetoric?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, generally, not over Twitter, I'll tell you, in my experience, the more you can be directly connected with somebody. Look, in the heat of the moment with that little screen in front of you, people say all kinds of things. But I also believe that we have a moment right now that calls for shared purpose in this country. And that's the tone that comes all the way from the top in this administration.

That's obviously something the president believes in, not to wave away the many deep and serious divisions in this country, but to work through them to deliver. I think the best way to build trust is to deliver results. And that's one of the reasons I'm so looking forward to the president signing the infrastructure deal today, and then folks like me across this administration getting to work, making real things happen. When you deliver results, I think that builds the kind of trust that you can then build on to do more and better things in the future.

JULIE HYMAN: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thanks for your time this morning. Appreciate it.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Good being with you.

JULIE HYMAN: We are going to take a quick break. When we come back, we were just talking about the--

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