It’s Mayor Pete! Biden picks Buttigieg to lead DOT with eye on improving infrastructure

Pete Buttigieg is President-elect Joe Biden’s choice for secretary of transportation, making the 38-year-old former South Bend, Ind., mayor in charge of improving the nation’s decaying infrastructure.

In Buttigieg, Biden appears to be elevating transportation from a backwater 58,000-person agency to one led by a legitimate star-power politician staking his future on the nation’s ability to move people and freight.

The post also gives Buttigieg a valuable springboard for his political future, which could include another run at the presidency in 2024. Buttigieg endorsed Biden after dropping out of the Democratic primary field last March, and the pair seem genuinely fond of each other.

After Buttigieg withdrew from the presidential primary, Biden spoke of the former mayor in glowing terms. Biden said Buttigieg had “unlimited potential” and even compared him to his late son, Beau.

Other than Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Buttigieg is the first former presidential rival who opposed Biden to be named to the incoming president’s cabinet. His only political post was mayor of South Bend from 2013-2019.

Biden already laid out a 10-year, $1.3 trillion plan to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure with an eye on creating what he calls millions of “clean energy jobs.” Buttigieg becomes the point person for that endeavor.

“I am not skilled enough or energetic enough to craft a persona,” Buttigieg once told the Chicago Tribune. “I just have to be who I am and hope people like it.  I think people in our party tie themselves up in pretzels trying to be more electable.”

Buttigieg becomes the nation’s 19th transportation secretary, succeeding Elaine Chao, wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. He beat out several others for the DOT post, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island, and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In Washington, observers say President-elect Biden’s plan for improving infrastructure has a chance of becoming real.

“It provides billions towards rebuilding roads and bridges, seeks to repair aging ports and railways and endeavors to expand millions of Americans’ access to fast, reliable public transportation,” said Mona Mohib, a federal policy advisor with McGuireWoods Consulting. She previously served as director of policy and communications at the Democratic Governors Association. She also was a member of the Obama/Biden Transition Team.

Through all of these efforts, she said, Biden promises to focus on renewable energy, fight climate change and incorporate innovative technologies.

However, she said, the plan relies on the funding mechanisms—reversing the Trump tax cuts and increasing taxes on fossil fuels. It is also short on details regarding implementation and process for many of its most aspirational plans, like expanding and modernizing Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor.

“One should ultimately see this plan as a wish list,” Mohib said. “Many of these policies are unlikely to materialize, but their principles—repairing America’s infrastructure and fighting climate change most prominently—will certainly guide the Department of Transportation’s agenda for the next four years.”

American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said in a statement his group is prepared to work with Buttigieg.

“Transportation is an issue that touches all Americans—urban, rural, coastal and in the heartland of our nation,” Spear said in a statement. “Having served as a mayor, Pete Buttigieg has had an up-close and personal look at how our infrastructure problems are impacting Americans, and how important it is to solve them.

“We look forward to rolling up our sleeves and working with him to begin the important work of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure,” Spear added.

For his part, Buttigieg has indicated he has only one way of tackling projects—all in, always an eye on the future

“The president’s promise is to turn back the clock, that we can somehow just go back to the 1950s. It’s just not true,” Buttigieg said last year on Twitter. “The economy is changing, the pace of change is accelerating, and what we’ve got to do is master those changes in order to make them work for us.”

About the Author

John D. Schulz

John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. John is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis.