Secretary Buttigieg On ‘US Mayors’ Role & Stewardship of the IRA

Pete Buttigieg

Urban leaders were gathered on October 18-20 for Bloomberg CityLab, a summit focused on a range of issues, from rapid urbanization to housing affordability. On the final day of the conference, Pete Buttigieg, the United States Secretary of Transportation, spoke about Vision Zero, the idea that the U.S. might hopefully, one day, see zero road deaths; he also spoke of the essential place of local communities as stewards of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, and his positive outlook on how we can move past this difficult decade by delivering on the explicit promises being made by our leaders today.

Pete Buttigieg: Good morning … I want to thank Mayor Bloomberg and Bloomberg Flint philanthropies for the opportunity to be here and I want to thank all of you (US Mayors) for your leadership. I was a mayor, as you might know, and back when I was mayor, I believed that local government was the most dynamic and indispensable level at which things get done. When I was a mayor, I believed that to be true. Now that I'm here in Washington DC, I know that to be true … I think being a mayor is the best and hardest job in government because so much is at stake because so much can we get away from you and because it's so rewarding when it goes well. 

I have the best job in the federal government, which is the opportunity to help shape and protect the means of transportation to get goods and people to where they need to be. But I think the main measure of our success will be whether through our work, your communities thrive, and that's why I'm so excited to be with you and was so pleased to hear about the work that you've been doing these last few days. I take great pride in the structure and the strategy of our grant programs, many of which you have benefited from. For the US mayor's who are here, we funded over 31,000 transportation projects and counting and we're not even halfway through the infrastructure law’s five year life. 

To be clear, none of those projects, not one of those 31,000 projects, was invented and cooked up in the US Department of Transportation headquarters. That's not how it works. Our thought is that the ideas, the projects, themselves don't come from Washington, but more of the funding should, more than the support should. And a strategy knitting them all together should, in the form of a national policy under President Biden's leadership, make sure that we use transportation to enhance the things that are most important about how people and goods get to where they need to go. 

First and foremost, safety, jobs and economic development, climate equity and innovation in ways that actually make the right kind of difference for people. I know that in times like this, there is a lot of pressure on our belief in the ability to get anything done. Certainly, we feel that at the national level. I haven't checked my phone in the last half hour or so. But last time I did, we didn't have a functioning House of Representatives in this country. 

We have enormous political division at the national level and, of course, at the global level. Anguish that is all too close to home for so many right here in the United States. In the face of all those problems, I am firmly convinced that salvation will come from the local and I see it in the level of trust and the level of a focus on getting things done that local leaders have that we want to support. What I wanted to do with my few minutes with you is just offer up one example of how that dynamic works. The example I'll give is around what I already mentioned, our department's reason for existing, the top priority of the US DoD, which is safety. 

We are very proud to be working with cities and towns and counties across America in order to enhance safety on our roads. There is something strange about America's psychology that we rightly have taken every necessary step to make sure that air travel is completely safe, something we don't take for granted and continue working on every day. So much so that a form of travel which involves getting in a metal tube and being propelled by flammable liquids miles above the surface of the ground at nearly the speed of sound is the safest way to get somewhere. It's incredible. If only we had that same level of safety and that same level of expectation for roadway safety. We lose 40,000 people a year in the United States alone in roadway deaths. We lost somebody, statistically, in the time that I've been on this stage, a full 737 every day. You, I know, don't accept that and neither do we.

I mentioned this in the context of the power of local action because I think that's how Vision Zero becomes a reality. We, as a department, have committed to the policy officially in this country that the only acceptable number of roadway deaths is zero and we’ve set about getting there. Many of you have long been champions and advocates of the Vision Zero mentality and strategy. But, I will take this opportunity to confess to you that I thought twice and swallowed hard before embracing that goal, not because it's not obviously a worthy goal, but because as a former mayor – who used goals and the ability to set them and then relatively quickly reached them as a way to provide motivational power and political energy around our priorities – I wondered whether zero seems so far off that there would be a risk of it being demotivating, that some people would scoff, and indeed some people have scoffed, and say it's pie-in-the-sky to talk about zero deaths. 

Two things convinced me otherwise. First of all, the fact that in other forms of transportation, we've done it. Again, the fact that more years than not we have had zero fatalities from airliner crashes. The other thing that seemed to really let me know that it was possible and necessary to embrace Vision Zero was that, even though we couldn't say that it would happen in the United States at a national level, next year or the year after that, we could see that it had already happened in cities, Nordic cities. Some very large ones, like Oslo, were able to attain, at least one year, zero deaths. But, since people, especially of my political persuasion, famously point to examples from the Nordics as maybe not so applicable in the United States; American cities, Hoboken, New Jersey City, Dina Minnesota, Evanston, Illinois, sizable cities, not our nation's capital, admittedly, but sizable cities actually saw zero traffic deaths over the course of a year. When you see that happen, then you're having a completely different conversation. 

It's one thing to say, how do we get this abstract goal of zero deaths across the country someday? It's another to say, last year, the biggest American city that had zero deaths had 50,000 people in it. What if next year, the biggest American city to have zero deaths had 60 or 70,000 people in it? What if the number of cities that had zero deaths grew every year? Goals that are still ambitious, but also goals you can get your arms around. And, of course, for all of that to work, these goals have to be made real somewhere. In particular, that all has to come from the local. But, as I said, the resources can't all come from the local. This town has a frustrating history in previous years, and I have to say, under previous administrations, of making big promises around infrastructure without results. 

Obviously, that changed. Another source of hope for me: the fact that almost exactly two years ago, we're coming up on the anniversary, President Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in a season in which most people thought it was laughable that you could attain a bipartisan anything law, besides perhaps a post office renaming. We got a trillion dollar infrastructure deal done in this country. And while I don't want to overlook the many ways in which the job of Mayor has become even more demanding and even more difficult, since the days when I proudly worked that title, I will say it would have been nice when I was mayor to have a trillion dollar infrastructure deal going on in the United States. 

We are using that to improve roads and bridges, to improve ports and airports, to modernize rail and transit in every part of the country. Many of you are already benefiting from these grants. Some of you, I had a chance to hear about some of the grants you have coming your way. And, you should know if you've received something like a RAISE grant, it's an extremely competitive process. So, you have a lot to be proud of if you got it. If you had a project and it didn't make it on the first round, talk to us about how to make it stronger and come back for another round because we want to say yes as many times as possible. 

One of the programs where we've been able to say yes to hundreds of communities is the Safe Streets for All program (SS4A). We're very proud of what we are funding, both implementation and planning, $800 million going directly to communities, and it is important for us to be working directly with communities. We do a lot of work with states, but there is no substitute for the insight, the knowledge and the priorities that come from the ground up, which is why we wanted to make sure that this program works directly with the counties, the cities, the towns, the tribes who are ready to put those dollars to work and I can't wait to see the results that you're going to get with that. And that is how we add, in a concrete tangible way, where we won't just one day, someday get to the goal of zero, but be able to say next year that we meaningfully advanced the number of Americans who benefited from that vision of zero deaths. That's how we're doing it. Literally putting our money where our mouth is and working side by side with you to help make it happen. 

I just wanted to offer that up as an example, but that's just one example. It's true of climate, where global movements of mayors and cities, not wanting to wait for their national capitals, came together, and efforts like the C40 [cities] and the Climate Mayors, to make sure that local action added up to global results. High speed rail is an example where what I believe will really turn the corner is something that we are able to fund with the infrastructure law which, admittedly, is not overnight because we have a lot of work to do to take care of what we've got. But, [there is] enough funding to make sure that we see a real high speed rail somewhere in particular in America. I'm convinced that the more Americans actually experience it, even once, the more they will return to their hometowns and say, why can't we have nice things like this? And we'll have more and more support and healthy pressure to get it done. 

Last thing I want to mention, just to link the everyday work that you are doing to some of the biggest and most weighty and sometimes painful conversations of our time, is I want to echo something the President has often mentioned about the importance of infrastructure to the legitimacy of democracy. It might sound like a lofty thing to invoke, when we're talking about roads and bridges and pipes and the internet, but I think if any audience will understand what I mean, it's this one. The measure of a political system is how it can deliver for its people. And when there is a competition between political systems, when there is, for example, a competition over whether a more authoritarian model can better deliver, than our messy, pluralistic democratic model, the most important proof points of that will be the ability to deliver on the basics. 

Delivering on the basics is what makes it possible for people to live healthy, fulfilled lives where they spend their time worrying about things like whether their kids are growing up with good values or whether they're able to grow their business or whether they’re living in line with their faith, or their goals. Something other than worrying about whether there's an affordable commute to work or whether the internet's on or not, or whether you can get a glass of clean, safe drinking water. When we take care of the basics, we build trust and trust is the indispensable element for social as well as political cohesion. You, as local leaders, are uniquely empowered to help deliver on that because your work cuts across the information bubbles. But, one of the best antidotes I've seen to an information bubble is a low tech thing called a neighborhood. You can cut across the partisan divides and do it in the process of delivering tangible results for the people who live there in ways that I am convinced will be our salvation. 

So, after 30 or 40 years of disinvestment from the federal government in local infrastructure needs, I'm here to tell you, yes, we are here from the federal government and yes, we are here to help. I was speaking last night at the National History Museum, and I've recently learned a new word: semiquincentennial. As we approach the 250th anniversary of this country, which is in 2026, questions will be asked about where we are in the trajectory of this nation. And, as we ask those questions, everybody will understand that we've been through a rough decade or so that leaders and, in particular, local leaders have so skillfully and gracefully managed, navigating everything from profound social and political divisions to a once in a century pandemic shutting down society. But I really believe by then, and that's not far off, it's the middle of this decade, we're going to be able to say that we are on a positive trajectory. Going a little further down the line, we will be able to look back to the 2020s and say that we were able to come together and get big things done. But in that, so much will depend on what gets done at the local level and that's where we are leaning into our determination to be more user friendly, more supportive, and to, literally, put federal money where our mouth is. So, thank you again for the chance to be here and look forward to working with you in every possible way.

“I'm here to tell you, yes, we are here from the federal government and yes, we are here to help… We’ve funded over 31,000 transportation projects and counting and we're not even halfway through the infrastructure law’s five [years of funding] to improve roads and bridges, to improve ports and airports, to modernize rail and transit in every part of the country.” - Pete Buttigieg