December 29. By Michael Sales. President-elect Biden has nominated Pete Buttigieg to be his administration’s Secretary of Transportation. In that capacity Buttigieg would have many infrastructure and climate responsibilities. The Department of Transportation (DOT) has a budget of over $70 billion and 56,600+ employees.
During his presidential campaign, Buttigieg pledged to restore Obama-era vehicle emissions standards, called for making the United States carbon neutral by 2050, and viewed carbon taxes as necessary. Under Buttigieg, the transportation department will play a climate-centric role. The agency regulates vehicle emissions, which, at about 30% of all greenhouse gas emissions, is the leading source of climate-warming pollution in the United States. Buttigieg is committed to encouraging electric vehicles and to providing funding for mass transit. He also will ensure that the agency’s plans for infrastructure improvements—to roads, bridges, dams and levees—take into account the effects of climate change.
Buttigieg traces his awareness of the climate emergency to his experience managing two supposedly 500-year floods of the St. Joseph River when he served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana for eight years. In his first term, “Mayor Pete” set about transforming the downtown, with a “Smart Streets” initiative that included sensitivity to micro-mobility through the addition of bike lanes, planting trees and reintroducing on-street parking that slowed traffic and lured pedestrians into the heart of the city. Once completed, the controversial $25 million investment ignited a revival of the urban center. New hotels, retail and residential conversions of lofts followed. About 1,000 people had taken up residence in downtown South Bend by the time Buttigieg left office, compared with virtually none when his term began in 2012. It is this sort of innovative thinking that leads observers to believe that the new transportation secretary will play a major role in Biden’s push for a bipartisan infrastructure package.
At his announcement of Buttigieg’s nomination, Biden spoke about the United States’ lagging behind other nations in terms of infrastructure quality, and his intention to address that by rebuilding crumbling roads and bridges. He stressed the intersection of these plans with his climate agenda, and how the two together will revitalize the economy, generate millions of jobs and turn the country toward electric vehicles and an electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
“We selected Pete for transportation because it is the intersection of some of the most ambitious plans to build back better,” Biden said. The President-elect compared his vision for overhauling our nation’s transportation infrastructure to the introduction of railroads—a revolutionary mobility innovation.
In accepting the nomination, Buttigieg spoke about his own “personal love of transportation, (especially trains) since childhood: “Though I know that, in this administration, I will at best aspire to be the second biggest train enthusiast around,” Buttigieg said, deferring to Biden, who took thousands of round trips on the Amtrak during his time as senator and vice president, and is the hands-down winner in the love-of-trains contest.
Speaking of what Transportation will be tasked with by the new administration, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said,
“We will transform our roads and bridges, transit systems, railways, ports and airports, while powering them with clean energy. Spark a renaissance in American passenger rail that will not only connect our country, but unlock job creation and growth across our manufacturing sector. And, we will expand and upgrade our transportation system in a way that is equitable, serving communities of every size, urban and rural, across our country.”
Buttigieg, 38, was valedictorian of the class of 2000 at St. Joseph High School in South Bend. He won first prize in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s Profiles in Courage essay contest, focusing on the integrity and political courage of then-U.S. representative Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Buttigieg attended Harvard University, where he majored in history and literature and graduated magna cum laude. He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics.
After earning his Oxford degree, in 2007 Buttigieg became a consultant at McKinsey & Company, where he worked on energy, retail, economic development and logistics for three years. His clients at McKinsey included the Natural Resources Defense Council (which Gina McCarthy, incoming National Climate Advisor for Biden, led in 2020), and several U.S. government agencies (the EPA, Energy Department, Defense Department, and Postal Service).
Buttigieg joined the U.S. Navy Reserve as an ensign in naval intelligence in September 2009. In 2014, he took a seven-month leave during his mayoral term to deploy to Afghanistan. While there, to better communicate with the local Afghans, he learned Dari (a dialect of Persian). Buttigieg was part of a unit assigned to identify and disrupt terrorist finance networks. He also was an armed driver for his commander on more than 100 trips into Kabul. He received the Joint Service Commendation Medal at the end of his term of service.
Biden has framed the connection between mobility and equity as an opportunity to make sure that one’s “ZIP code doesn’t determine your access to a good job, a good school, a good education, [and] health care.” A recent tweet demonstrated that Buttigieg is very much on board with this perspective, stating that he sees his new role heading DOT as a “tremendous opportunity—to create jobs, meet the climate challenge, and enhance equity for all.”