Pete Buttigieg on Climate Change, Electric Vehicles, and the New DOT

Pete Buttigieg, the man now responsible for managing the means by which Americans travel trillions of miles per year, can’t leave his house. Just days after he was confirmed as secretary of transportation, a member of his security detail tested positive for Covid-19, forcing the newly minted Cabinet member to start turning the wheels on his agenda from quarantine. “We’re trying to practice what we preach, right?” he says of the decision to stay home. He’s trying his best to hide his exasperation.

A little frustration is understandable. The Covid scare meant Buttigieg had to attend his first Oval Office meeting via flatscreen, and as far as getting a revamped, eco-centric approach to transportation in gear, it was a big one. Biden and a virtual Secretary Pete sat down with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss a new — and hopefully very green — infrastructure bill. Passing one under Trump became a joke (remember “Infrastructure Week”?), but with coastal highways collapsing and power grids failing, there’s no time to laugh. Republicans have said they’ll work with Democrats, but there’s plenty of reason to be wary that they’ll agree to fund some of the climate-focused initiatives Democrats want to include in the bill. “It’s so important that we actually get it done,” Buttigieg says, “and not allow infrastructure to continue to be something that people will roll their eyes at.”

There’s no reason transportation, currently the largest source of greenhouse-gas pollution in the nation, has to be such a liability in the fight against climate change. Buttigieg is confident in both the administration’s ability to come to terms with conservatives and in his department’s ability to reimagine how America moves itself around.

A big part of taking on climate change for the DOT is going to come down to passing an infrastructure bill. How do you make this a bipartisan issue again, especially considering some of the climate-related measures you’re going to want to include in it?
It’s an abundantly bipartisan issue among the American people. That much is clear. The challenge is to make sure that bipartisan support is actually reflected here in Washington. So how do we do it? I think it’s making sure that we are responsive to all the different needs and interests at the table, from our biggest cities to a lot of rural areas. It means understanding the relationship between what you might call hard infrastructure, like roads and rails, and digital infrastructure, a very important part of how we address under-served areas that have been cut off from the kind of broadband access they need.

The other thing we’ve got to do is be relentlessly focused on job creation here, because what we’re also talking about when we’re talking about infrastructure is the economic strength of the United States, and that should be a bipartisan priority, especially if we’re considering, frankly, our slipping competitiveness with regard to a lot of countries that have not hesitated to make big infrastructure investments.

What are some of the short-term things the DOT can do right now, without Congress, to take on climate change? I know you already announced $180 million in grants, including allotments for zero- and low-emission bus lines. What’s the next step?
Going forward, with any discretionary infrastructure grants, you’re going to see an attention to climate impacts and an attention to racial and economic impacts that maybe hasn’t always been there in the past but is absolutely going to be there going forward. Some of it’s just what we try to promote in terms of work that communities are already doing. This is why things like [walkable and bikeable] “complete streets” are so important. If they can encourage some of that mode-shifting that recognizes that not every trip needs to be in a single-occupant vehicle, that has a climate impact. The way we team up with [Housing and Urban Development] on transit-oriented development [which emphasizes access to public transportation] may involve legislation, but a lot of it doesn’t have to. Then, internally, we’re going to try to set the right example just in terms of our own fleet. It may be a small piece of the bigger puzzle, but it’s a chance to lead by example.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine put out a budget proposal that cuts Ohio’s public transportation fund by 90 percent, which is a reminder that a lot of these key decisions are going to be made on state and local levels. How can the DOT affect change there, especially considering some of the budgetary constraints resulting from the pandemic?
We want to work with any state or local or tribal or territorial authority that’s seeking to do the right thing. This is not about pressure. This is about resources. Let me also say that one thing I’ve noticed here in Washington is that people say “state and local” like it’s one word. To me, even though all the attention around here is on the relationship between the federal government and the states, I think the most interesting relationships in federalism are between cities and towns and everybody else. If you’ve got a community that’s out trying to do the right thing, maybe they don’t feel like they have a friend in their own state capitol. They’re going to have a friend in Washington.

Cars and trucks are the biggest greenhouse-gas emitters in the country. President Obama called for a five percent increase in efficiency year over year. President Trump knocked that down to 1.5 percent. How do you plan to approach fuel-efficiency standards? Is reverting to Obama’s requirement going far enough?
I can tell you that we’re going to be looking for more, not less, climate ambition. The real balance is how much do we concentrate on the tailpipe issue versus supporting the development of EVs [electric vehicles] across the board? Government has a tendency to focus on limiting or proscribing what we don’t want. Sometimes you’ve got to do that, that’s what regulation is about. But it’s just as important to support what we do want.

GM has pledged to stop producing gas-powered vehicles by 2035. What kind of role can the DOT play in pressuring auto-makers to cut emissions and go electric?
I think DOT should be an engine within the administration of supporting market-making — for example, the overall electrification of the federal fleet. Most of those vehicles are not owned by DOT, but we could be facilitating some of that work, and that creates more and more of a market for EVs, writ large. There are things you can do to change the fundamental economics of this, and that’s what the $7,500 tax credit [for electric vehicles] is all about. But as costs continue falling to where they’re really at parity with internal-combustion cars, which I think is pretty close at hand, then the biggest obstacle stops being price and starts being range anxiety. That’s something where I think there’s absolutely a federal role. This is the importance of the president’s goal of half a million EV charging stations around the country.

A unique aspect to your new role is the amount of name recognition you have and the amount of attention that stands to bring to a department that doesn’t typically get a lot of it. To what extent is taking advantage of this part of your thinking?
There’s nothing I love more than bringing attention to an unglamorous topic that deserves more attention. Even as mayor, I was an evangelist for smart sewer technology because it was, in my view, really exciting. So I’m relishing the opportunity to do that with a lot of things in transportation, some of them well understood and already considered fairly sexy in the policy world, some of them pretty obscure.

What are some of these more “obscure,” unsexy elements of transportation policy you’d like to use your position to shine a light on?
The intimate connection of unsexy transportation decisions to some of the most important issues of our moment around climate and justice are huge. I can’t think of maybe a less-sexy phrase for some people than “land use.” But when I’m thinking about automated vehicles and the challenges that presents, it’s not just the safety and the operational questions of the vehicle; it’s what happens in a world where we don’t need nearly as many surface parking lots because most people experience cars as a service rather than as a possession. For any mayor who has agonized over how to get a compelling job-creating development deal done because you couldn’t find room for parking, that’s fascinating. Tantalizing even. Not everyone feels that fingertips-tingling about zoning and land use. But to me, those are the stakes just as much as being in a slick, hypermodern pod shuttling you around the metropolis of the future.