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Pete Buttigieg confirmed as DOT secretary

Pressure on former mayor to make progress on emerging transportation policy

Buttigieg says he's open to several options to pay for highway infrastructure. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly (86-13) on Tuesday to confirm Pete Buttigieg as U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) secretary, a development industry watchers hope turns out to be the first step in getting an infrastructure package passed this year.

There will be pressure on Buttigieg to begin making progress on a handful of emerging transportation policy issues.

“He will have to think about issues of ensuring safety with new autonomous vehicle technologies,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, said today prior to the confirmation vote. “He’ll have to promote stronger emission standards for automobiles, aviation, and maritime industries. He’ll have to support the continued growth of electrical vehicle infrastructure. He’ll have to make big investments and game-changing projects that will help us move freight more cost effectively through our nation.”

During his confirmation hearing last week, Buttigieg said President Joe Biden made clear his expectations that his cabinet work on delivering a climate vision “and certainly DOT has a big part in this,” Buttigieg said.

“You think about the role involved in fuel economy standards, vehicle electrification, what we’d have to do as a country to have a charging station infrastructure. I think these will have to be contemplated as a central feature of any infrastructure package. I look forward to working with our partners at the state, local, territorial and tribal levels to find solutions to our infrastructure issues while we also prepare for the future of transportation at a time of great change.”

Other than a brief confrontation with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, over the Biden administration’s canceling of the Keystone XL Pipeline project, Buttigieg’s confirmation hearing went smoothly.

Buttigieg testified that he was open to continuing to prop up the highway trust fund through transfers from the U.S. Treasury “if there’s an appetite for it,” and would consider a user fee based on vehicles miles traveled. “It’s going to have to be a conversation not only in the administration but with Congress too,” he said. His testimony on being open to paying for highway infrastructure by raising the federal gas tax was subsequently retracted by his staff, according to reports.

Sam Graves, R-Missouri, the Republican leader of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, which is charged with crafting infrastructure legislation, said there is strong bipartisan support for passing an infrastructure bill. “I sincerely believe we can find common ground” with Buttigieg leading DOT, Graves said in congratulating him on his confirmation.

Graves said he agrees with Buttigieg that “increasing or indexing the federal gas tax is not a long-term solution, especially given the new Administration’s and House Democrats’ goal of virtually eliminating gas-powered vehicles. Clearly, we need to find a fairer and more sustainable method of supporting the Highway Trust Fund, and I look forward to working with Secretary Buttigieg to explore a viable replacement for the federal gas tax, such as a Vehicle Miles Traveled system.”

Buttigieg asserted during his confirmation hearing that he supported increasing funding federal programs that invest in infrastructure, such as DOT’s BUILD and INFRA competitive grants. “He also called for increased transparency in the competitive grant award process,” said Elaine Nessle, executive director of Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC). “Both of these notions are long-held CAGTC principles and we look forward to working with Secretary Buttigieg to achieve these shared goals.”

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) endorsed Buttigieg’s nomination, welcoming his support for increasing federal investment in infrastructure that can also help grow the economy.

“That work begins with securing immediate funding to address our short-term needs over the next decade while we develop new, technology-driven solutions over the long term,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spear. “ATA stands ready to assist the Biden administration in advancing a robust highway funding bill across the finish line.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.