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Secretary Pete’s first year: Here’s how he rates

Buttigieg praised on historic investments while supply chain and regulatory concerns persist

Policy experts rate Buttigieg's first year on the job. (Photo: DOT, Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

National exposure as a presidential candidate in the 2020 presidential election made Pete Buttigieg probably the most well-known U.S. transportation secretary in history when he was sworn in on Feb. 3, 2021.

He joined the Biden administration just as the COVID-19 pandemic was beginning to wreak havoc on domestic supply chains, while at the same time President Biden was under pressure to deliver on a main pillar upon which his campaign was built: a transformational transportation infrastructure package.

Given Buttigieg’s popularity — he recently became the first DOT secretary to have a bobblehead recognized by the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum — and his close work with the Biden administration to improve freight movement, we thought it appropriate to measure his success as he approaches his first full year in office.

A DOT veteran’s take

“For a first-year DOT secretary, I’m very impressed with what he’s gotten done,” former DOT official Mort Downey told FreightWaves. As the longest serving U.S. deputy secretary of transportation (1993-2001) who has worked with or met every DOT secretary except one (Claude Brinegar), Downey is in a good position to offer a perspective.

“When you have someone who is recognized as in tune with what the president wants to achieve and who’s going to give the department its opportunity to shine, people will respect that and listen to what he has to say. The whole department seems to have a good sense of what they want to get done, with consistent messaging coming from the heads of the various agencies. I don’t think that happens without a certain level of leadership at the top.”

Regarding Buttigieg’s role in shepherding the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act — referred to now as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) — “only about half of it is his, but it’s the half that people really recognize as infrastructure programs,” Downey said.

In addition to reauthorizing surface transportation programs for five years, the $1.2 trillion BIL includes roughly $244 billion in new investments affecting freight transportation: $110 billion for roads and bridges, $66 billion for railroads, $25 billion for airports, $17 billion for ports, $15 billion for electric vehicles, and $11 billion for road safety.

“If he doesn’t make his part work it will look like the entire package has collapsed. So he’s out there in front on what his department can do, how they’re going to get it done and how it relates to the broader objective of the Biden administration.”

Freight lobby weighs in

Elaine Nessle, executive director of the lobbying group Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors, agreed that Buttigieg was key to moving across the finish line the largest infrastructure funding package in decades.

“Secretary Buttigieg was instrumental in raising awareness for the need for investment and made sure every corner of the country was aware of that need versus continuing to defer maintenance,” Nessle told FreightWaves. “This will certainly be considered a Biden administration crowning achievement regardless of what happens the rest of his term.”

To the extent Buttigieg can take credit for making the case to lawmakers and their constituents for passing the massive BIL, he has the largest freight transportation lobbying groups in his corner as well.

“Roads and bridges are not political — we all drive on them,” commented Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, after President Biden signed the BIL into law in November. “A majority in the House and Senate realized this truth and did what’s right for the country, not themselves.”

Buttigieg at Washington D.C.’s Union Station Feb. 2021. (Photo: John Gallagher)

The administration’s prioritizing infrastructure investment was the result of “bipartisan negotiations and tireless work,” said Association of American Railroads President and CEO Ian Jefferies. “This package will help pave the way for a more modern, safer and resilient infrastructure network.”

The American Association of Port Authorities called the BIL a “crucial step in repositioning America’s competitive posture” in global trade. “The supplemental appropriations contained in this legislation are welcome news for freight movement and will be used primarily to create a more fluid and resilient port system, including intermodal connectivity.”

Taking the supply chain fall

Bipartisan admiration for Buttigieg and the Biden administration begins to wane, however, when the subject turns to lingering supply chain disruption and its role in causing the highest inflation levels in years.

Most of that blame comes from only one side of the aisle, of course, so it could be argued that it is purely partisan politics at play. But optics counts in Washington, and at least half of Capitol Hill is willing to lay most if not all of the blame at the door of the White House and DOT.

One of the most vocal critics is Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla. As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, he went so far as to hold up confirmation of DOT and Department of Commerce political appointees — including Meera Joshi as administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration — until they were willing to come to Capitol Hill to testify on increasing concerns over the supply chain.

“We have had crisis after crisis due to the failed leadership of President Biden and his appointees,” Scott said in December. “In fact, they are actively hurting [American families] as inflation rises to record highs and is threatening to rise even more as Biden pushes his reckless tax-and-spend agenda.”

In response, Buttigieg pointed to steps he and the administration have taken to directly address the crisis, including nudging ports into 24/7 operations and standing up a Trucking Action Plan aimed at recruiting and retaining more truck drivers.

But pushback has come not only from his political adversaries. Labor and container shipping have been skeptical about the effectiveness of 24/7 operations to deal with the long line of ships waiting to unload at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. And a significant sector of the trucking industry — independent owner-operators — do not consider lowering the age for a federal CDL to 18 as a viable way to address driver retention.

“We’d also like to see the administration do more about the parking shortage,” Norita Taylor, public relations director for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told FreightWaves. A competitive grant program dedicated specifically for expanding truck parking was negotiated out of the BIL before it was signed into law.

Challenge for 2022

After the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state of America’s infrastructure a grade of C-minus in early 2021, ASCE President-elect Maria Lehman is giving Buttigieg her personal grade of A for how he has so far led DOT in making sure those billions of dollars get properly apportioned to the states.

Lehman, who is also director of U.S. infrastructure at engineering and construction firm GHD, said that because of the secretary’s experience as a mayor, “he understands the importance of local infrastructure assets and the need to provide not only supplemental funding but local support and assistance in the delivery of federal aid projects,” she told FreightWaves.

“The [BIL’s] look at future energy, sustainability and resilience resulted in the development of over a dozen new highway programs. This is amazing progress in less than two months from the law’s enactment.”

But the road in 2022 is not all smooth for infrastructure and supply chains. Despite action taken by Buttigieg and the administration to attack the problem, the massive backlog of ships waiting to unload into the U.S. — which directly affects domestic supply chains — has shown no signs of letting up.

In addition, a 20% bump in program funding (versus new investment money) included in the BIL is currently tied up in an appropriations bill that has yet to be negotiated — which means until lawmakers can resolve their differences, states will not be able to receive those additional funds.

Former FMCSA Deputy Administrator Wiley Deck, who as head of the agency handed the wheel to the incoming Biden administration and now works for self-driving truck startup Plus, believes the Buttigieg-led DOT has a big challenge ahead from a trucking regulatory perspective.

“I think he has decent ideas moving forward, including his attention to the driver pay issue and trucking detention times,” Deck told FreightWaves. “But implementing those things becomes challenging because there’s not much in the way of legal authority for the department or the agency to deal with unfair detention time, or even the driver pay issue.

“We would also like to see progress made this year on autonomous trucking regulations. We’ve already seen multiple delays already over the last two years. So my hope is that he really focuses on an area of the economy — trucking — that’s really important to all of us.” 

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.

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.