During his Senate confirmation hearing, President Biden’s nominee for United States Department of Transportation (US DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s comments signaled a change in federal transportation priorities. Safety, jobs, climate — and trains — were the terms of the day. Buttigieg emphasized his “bottom-up” perspective as a mayor and we hope this experience will motivate reforms of federal transportation funding that benefit sustainable transportation projects and urgent local transit needs.
From the role of the transportation sector in climate change to the “misguided policies” of highway subsidies and urban renewal, Buttigieg hit many of the notes advocates wanted to hear. Streetsblog USA reported on the highlights — and lowlights:
Chief among them were his potential role in reducing the country’s transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions — something that Buttigieg says will be a defining legacy ‘when the history books are written about our careers’ — as well as curbing our national roadway death toll that claimed the lives of over 36,000 road users last year. Buttigieg’s commitment to increasing mobility access for people with disabilities and addressing the racist legacies of highway building also got brief but meaningful shout-outs — though, notably, his role in ending police brutality against people of color did not.
-Streetsblog USA, “Five Highlights from Pete Buttigieg’s Confirmation Hearing”
It’s refreshing to hear Buttigieg call out the role of federal transportation policy in creating disparities that continue today with highway funding and placement decisions on CNN: “It’s disproportionately Black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn’t have the political capital to resist… We have a chance to get that right.” and on Twitter. We will be following this issue closely as Atlanta neighborhoods continue to grapple with the high asthma rates, unsafe streets, and other harms caused by highways that cut communities in half decades ago.
Last but not least, it was clear Buttigieg has given traffic safety serious thought. He noted that 36-38,000 people die each year due to traffic violence and echoed the language of Vision Zero advocates in saying each of those deaths are unacceptable.
Over the course of my lifetime, we’ve made a lot of gains as a country on dealing with the effects of drunk driving on road safety and fatalities, only to see distracted driving rise to become a new and deadly effect. I believe the number stands at something on the order of 36,000 or 38,000 lost in a single year to crashes on the road. We cannot accept that and we need to move toward a vision where every trip is a safe one, whether it’s long or short, on any of America’s roadways.
-Pete Buttigieg, quoted in Streetsblog USA, “Five Highlights from Pete Buttigieg’s Confirmation Hearing”
We’re also excited about the Biden-Harris administration’s other appointments to the U.S. DOT. Former Equity and Inclusion Manager of the Portland Bureau of Transportation, Irene Marion, will become Director of the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Transportation, a key role for those of us who believe equity should be at the heart of transportation policy going forward. Former New York DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg has been nominated as deputy secretary, a move Streetsblog New York called “our loss … America’s gain.” Streetsblog went on to quote the press release touting Trottenberg’s accomplishments, including Vision Zero, improving transportation equity, a busway, and “transforming city streets.”
With a team like this, we’re optimistic that federal transportation policy will prioritize safety, equity, and multimodal mobility. We’re paying close attention and look forward to partnering with national advocacy organizations to make the most of the opportunity these promising appointments represent.
Georgia’s newly elected congressmembers are in on the action as well. Representative Williams’ platform highlighted environmental justice and Representative Bourdeaux’s addressed transit expansion and the climate crisis — both have been appointed to serve on the House Democratic Steering Committee for Transportation and Infrastructure. Senator Reverend Warnock and Senator Ossoff campaigned with encouraging mentions of prioritizing sustainable, active transportation needs. Read our statement welcoming our new senators here.