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Buttigieg talks EVs, Amtrak with DBT

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Wilmington on Friday to tout the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed last year. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – On Friday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Wilmington to promote the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) that was passed by Congress last fall and signed by President Joe Biden.

The BIL includes billions for highway and bridge repairs, but also investments in electric vehicles and a charging network for them, clean water initiatives, and improvements to the nation’s Amtrak rail system.

Delaware Business Times got a chance to ask Buttigieg about the BIL and what businesses and communities can expect under his leadership. The questions and responses have been lightly edited to improve clarity.

We’re talking about a lot of money with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. How soon can states, cities, and jurisdictions really start to see some of that money flow down the pipeline?

So, the funding is already beginning to flow. We were already able to put about $50 billion of highway funding out. Next week, we’ll be making these announcements for zero-emission buses and bus facilities. I would say very few weeks will go by this year without us making some kind of announcement, because we really want to get these dollars onto the street.

Now, even more important than doing it fast is doing it right. So, we’re going to take care to design these programs the right way; make sure they’re accountable. And we are still waiting on Congress to do a budget and appropriations so that some of the funds that we can’t just spend yet are ready to flow. But we’re not wasting a minute on this.

The original timeline was to get all the money out in five years, obviously kind of tailored with the Biden administration. Is that still the goal?

We’re still tracking on that five-year plan. But we’re building cathedrals here, right? If we’re talking about road repair, it could be happening this summer. But if we’re talking about a new port, or a new airport, or a new bridge, some of these things will take many years. That’s the nature of infrastructure, all the more reason to get to work right away.

The original American Jobs Act plan was significantly larger than what was ultimately passed as the BIL. Have there been any discussions between you and the president about trying to get some more of that funding that didn’t make it in the initial law?

Right now, we’ve got so much on our plate with the funding that did pass. It’s the biggest investment in our transportation since the Eisenhower administration. It’s going to be keeping me and my colleagues busy for as long as I have this role, but you know, there’s always more need. And so, we’re partnering to look at how to leverage state and local dollars as well with this big infusion of federal support.

DART has used federal grants to convert 26 buses to zero-emission models over the past several years. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Some of the BIL funding will go toward public transit buses, but there’s also another pot of money for school buses. There are obviously far more school buses than public transit, is that sum going to be enough money to really cover the glut of the problem there or will additional funding be needed for school buses?

It’s going to make a big difference. It’s not every bus in the country, but the other thing we can do is we can push the whole market in that direction and create more of a domestic manufacturing base for these kinds of buses and facilities. So that even the ones that aren’t purchased with federal dollars are more and more likely to be electric. And that’s part of the momentum that is snowballing; we’re hoping it will take place with these funds that we’re putting out.

Is there any kind of plan in terms of the school buses, particularly because so many of them are owned by private companies rather than districts or states? Is it something where you would incentivize the purchase from a private contractor? Or would you first go after publicly funded districts for grants?

The policy design on that piece is still under way, but I will say, if you look at something like the EV chargers, those aren’t going to be government-owned and -operated. It is a public-private partnership; we’re just buying down the difference in terms of the price so that it really works for everybody. And there are a lot of areas where that’s the right answer.

In terms of electric vehicles, there’s range anxiety for the general consumer in terms of seeing a connected network across the country. Will the billions in the BIL to help expand that be big enough to make a dent to try to help convert more of those consumers?

Yes, it’s one of the biggest steps we need to take. People need to know that there’s a backbone of chargers across the highway system the same way as you know that there’s going to be a place to fill up.

Part of it’s also education; a lot of folks don’t realize that even the most affordable EVs can go sometimes 200, 300 or 400 miles on a charge and a lot of them you can charge right at home. But still, depending on how you travel, what your community is like, what your routines are like, you may need more than what you can leave the house with. And that’s why we need to have the system out there.

U.S. Sen. Tom Carper, left, arrives at the Wilmington Amtrak station with U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Friday morning. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CARPER OFFICE

With Amtrak a major employer in Wilmington and its Northeast Corridor a major benefactor of the BIL funding, where do you see working with Amtrak, which is kind of this quasi-public-private entity? And how do you work that into your larger plan?

Amtrak is a critical partner. I made a point of taking Amtrak over here following the president’s footsteps out of D.C. We’re making sure that there’s a greater level of support for Amtrak than we’ve had since it was created. It’s so important to have reliable, consistent service.

There’s a unique quality to the Northeast Corridor, of course, and that’s where we’ve got to make sure that we’re supporting, over time, shorter trips, but also just the fundamentals are in place. You look at things like the Hudson River tunnels along the Northeast Corridor, which is 110-year-old technology. We’ve been counting on it for way too long, and we finally have the means to make a difference.

As someone who ran a racially diverse city, not unlike Wilmington, what kind of impact can federal transportation funding make in terms of righting some of those generational wrongs and disparities that exist today?

Anytime we know that a highway was built in a way that destroyed a Black neighborhood or divided a Black neighborhood from a white one, I think we have a responsibility to pay attention to that and do better this time around. We can and we will.

More than that, we’re going to be able to create jobs for people who have historically been left out of these wonderful pathways to the middle class through good-paying construction jobs and small businesses that can be delivering so much in this world.

We have, I think, a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do right by the equity issues that are at stake in transportation, and we’re thinking about it every day. 

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