New Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to TPG: Bold action on travel is underway

Feb 5, 2021

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United States Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made history this week when he was sworn in by Vice-President Kamala Harris. He became the first openly gay man confirmed by the United States Senate to a cabinet-level role. In a wide-ranging interview with The Points Guy, Buttigieg said not only can we expect a major infrastructure push, but changes in transportation policies have already begun: “The broader vision of a recovery is, as the president says, not just build back, but, build back better.”

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“Mayor Pete” talked with us about the major push on infrastructure coming from the Biden White House and how he was hoping to aggressively move on airport funding, high-speed and rural rail projects, battling climate change and making sure his department was moving forward inclusively and with an eye toward equity for communities of color.

He also talked a bit about his own love of travel, some of his favorite airports and his best-ever miles and points redemptions.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Pandemic recovery

Buttigieg said, “the transportation sector, in particular, has been decimated by the effects of the pandemic, and millions of jobs are at stake. Our livelihoods are at stake, and even if you don’t work in the transportation sector, chances are you rely on transit or something else adjacent to it for your well-being. The president is acting swiftly to make sure that we have the resources to restore and build back this important sector.”

The Biden administration is moving a $1.9 trillion dollar pandemic recovery act through Congress. In fact, the measure passed a key milestone in the U.S. Senate this morning.

Infrastructure push

Democratic presidential primary debate at Paris Las Vegas on February 19, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Buttigieg ran against President Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, and the two men are both fascinated by all things transportation. Buttigieg said, “I’m a huge transportation geek. It’s part of why I love the opportunity to do this work.”

Both Biden and Buttigieg had massive infrastructure plans as core to their respective platforms. During his confirmation hearing, Buttigieg pledged his support for President Biden’s $2 trillion infrastructure plan that’s also a major way to tackle the problem of climate change.

Buttigieg told me:

“This isn’t just rewinding to 2019. This is how to make sure that the 2020s are remembered as the years in which America once more took the lead on infrastructure globally. That’s everything from making sure our roads and bridges are up to date to being prepared for a future that includes electric vehicles and automated vehicles, and it means doing so in a way that meets the climate challenge and that meets challenges of racial and economic justice that, frankly, in the past have sometimes been made worse by federal decisions about transportation. Now we have a chance to make things much better.”

The proposal would eliminate carbon emissions from the power grid by 2035 and provide massive incentives to get Americans into electric vehicles and mass transit. There would be money for electric charging stations across the country. There would also be massive spending to rebuild roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Trains

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

I asked Buttigieg how the federal government would balance big-ticket, high impact urban rail improvements like fixing the tracks of the Northeast corridor with the needs of rural America in places like Montana, where they’re pushing to get rail service back to parts of Southwestern Montana.

Buttigieg said:

“Well, to me, this is not an either or, and maybe I feel that way ’cause I am from the city where I could take a bus to a comparatively tall building I used to work in, or I could take a walk to the nearest cornfield. And so I know that all of these things fit together. You think about where I come from in the Midwest. If we could network the cities of the Midwest into shorter distances by passenger rail between each other that would benefit rural and urban areas alike. So whether we’re talking about the opportunities in a place like Montana, or whether we’re talking about the Northeast corridor — that is a regional piece of infrastructure with national economic significance — what we know is that it all has to be part of an integrated vision. The core of that vision is that an American citizen should have nothing to envy from a Japanese or Chinese or for that matter, an Italian or Turkish citizen when it comes to the opportunities for them to travel quickly where they need to be, and safely on passenger rail.”

President-elect Biden is known as a fan of Amtrak and trains in general. He famously used Amtrak for his commute between Washington and Delaware during his years in the Senate. In fact, Biden is likely to teach Buttigieg a few things when it comes to trains.

The Biden Administration will likely, instead, add to the budget for long-distance train travel, including Amtrak and increase funding for other trains, airports, ports and other infrastructure spending overall. The Biden Administration is also much more likely to work with big-city mayors asking for federal funds for big train projects.

New York, for example, has been asking for major federal funding towards efforts to shore up the busy Northeast corridor and make improvements to tracks and stations.

Related: Amtrak plans to expand new nonstop Acela service from New York

President Biden and Buttigieg are also likely to try to push through long-stalled infrastructure projects and fund projects already underway. President Biden has said his team wants “to spark the second great rail revolution.”

High-speed rail

Amtrak’s new Acela locomotive. (Image courtesy Amtrak)

We asked Buttigieg what kind of timeline he was looking at on high-speed rail advancements. He said there was nothing immediate to announce, but it would be part of the policy conversation in the days and weeks ahead. He mentioned they’d be working through the recovery package and rescue plan before tackling a surface transportation reauthorization where high-speed rail will be addressed.

Related: Amtrak’s new Acela high-speed trains to launch 2021

He said, “So those policy processes are going to be a chance for the Congress, stakeholders and frankly the whole country to be in a conversation about what we’re willing to do. I believe the political will is there on a bipartisan basis to make an investment like we haven’t in my lifetime.”

I mentioned that we might also see some sign-off from the Republicans and “maybe it’ll finally be infrastructure week.”

Buttigieg said simply, “I’m hoping it will be infrastructure year.”

Sidewalks and bicycles

A user rides a Spin scooter on April 17, 2018, in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Much of the reaction to the Buttigieg original nomination on social media was focused on his efforts as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to improve cycling options and to expand sidewalks, helping to make urban areas more pedestrian and bike-friendly.

Buttigieg said, “Obviously, as a mayor, I’m thinking a lot about things like micro-mobility, just getting around whether it’s on foot or on a bicycle..  not assuming that the only role of the street is to push a vehicle through as quickly as possible.”

In a statement, the League of American Bicyclists said, “we look forward to working with the former mayor of a Silver-level Bicycle Friendly Community in making biking better for all people, of all ages and abilities.”

Indeed, the former mayor told TPG, “… whether we’re talking about what we can do there or whether we’re talking about long-haul, train, passenger, train travel and long-haul air travel, we know that every one of these areas is ripe for a leap forward like we haven’t seen in a long time. I mean, so many things that we do haven’t changed that much since the fifties. And I think they’re about to.”

Airports

The ticketing hall in the new Terminal B designed by HOK at LaGuardia. (Image by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

One of the most glaring needs for federal funding is at U.S. airports, where there’s been no real increase in airport improvement program grants or in passenger facility fees in years.

Buttigieg told me, “We’ve definitely got to look at sustainable funding. And this is another example of something that really got ravaged by the pandemic because so much relies on those fees.” Buttigieg continued, “there are a lot of different views on how best to do it, and I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves on that, but what we know is that we’ve got to have first-rate airport infrastructure in this country if we want to be economically competitive.”

NextGen air traffic control

Improved flight tracking via ADS-B is one of the many facets of NextGen modernization delayed due to lack of consistent funding. (Image courtesy of the FAA)

One of the things that go hand in hand with airport funding is the NextGen air traffic control system that’s been in the works in some form or fashion since the nineties. I asked Buttigieg about more funding to get that done and he said, “there’s definitely a lot of appetite for this in Congress that came up during my confirmation process.” He said he’s already been speaking to FAA leadership about it.

But Buttigieg also warned that there was no simple solution:

“It’s complex, there’s a lot of pieces to it. It’s not just a piece of equipment or software that one day you say, all right, we’ve made it, it’s NextGen. It’s a whole set of overlapping technologies and procedures. But if we get it right, it benefits safety, it assures American leadership in air traffic control. And there’s some climate benefits here because we know that aircraft don’t have to be in the air quite as much if we’re moving around more efficiently and safely.”

Quarantines

The Biden administration has been very aggressive about changes to federal policy around COVID-19. That includes adding mask mandates and a testing requirement for all inbound international air travelers. Among President Biden’s first executive orders was also requiring a quarantine for all passengers returning from an international trip.

The president says anyone coming into the United States by air “will need to test before they get onto that plane before they depart and quarantine when they arrive in America.”

We are still waiting on details on how that quarantine will be enforced and how long those quarantines will last.

Related: What it was like flying home now that the US requires a negative COVID-19 test

Indeed, Buttigieg confirmed those details are still being worked on but weren’t settled just yet. He echoed previous comments from the administration that they will be based on recommendations from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

He said, “I can’t speak to any future steps yet, although I can tell you that any steps that are taken in the future, they’re going to be informed by talking to stakeholders. They’re going to be informed by science and medicine. And the bottom line is always going to be safety because we know that the more there is a perception, as well as the reality of safety, the more that restores confidence and restores the industry too.” 

Testing for domestic flights

TPG reported back in January, the Biden administration was actively looking into a testing requirement for domestic flights. I asked Buttigieg about that proposal, and while he didn’t rule it out, he also implied it’s not imminent and was still being looked at. He said, “So there’s a conversation underway with the CDC on that. What I can tell you is that the guiding lights of that conversation will be a lot of engagement and dialogue and a lot of attention to evidence and data.”

So far, the airlines have been adamant that such a requirement would be a major blow to the airline industry.

Related: Travel industry calls test mandate “unwarranted” 

Airlines for America (A4A), an industry trade organization for the leading U.S. airlines, released a statement on Jan. 29, saying “the costs and consequences of a testing requirement for domestic air travel would far outweigh any potential benefits.”

Buttigieg as avgeek

Finally, I had to ask a series of questions for which any true aviation geek would have quick answers.

Buttigieg told me he picked window seats on flights so he could “lean my head and sleep.” When I asked “carry-on or checked luggage?” he told me he almost never checks bags. He said, “definitely carry-on. And it’s amazing what you can cram into a carry-on if you’re efficient.”

When he was asked what his favorite U.S. airport was, he answered like a true politician:

“Well, obviously, I’m partial to Southbend International Airport (SBN). Matter of fact, we’re proud of the fact that it went international on my watch.” He also said he had “a very soft spot for O’Hare ’cause that’s where I proposed to Chasten [his husband]. As I said in my announcement, you don’t let anybody tell you O’Hare isn’t romantic.”

He also raved about Traverse City, where Chasten Buttigieg is from, “(TVC) has done a remarkable job, I think, of using space very well. It’s called Cherry Capital Airport because they’re the cherry capital of the world… they can make an announcement without even using the PA because everything is very cozy. At the same time, they have a healthy amount of traffic through there for a community that size. That’s definitely one of the more charming airports I’ve been.”

The last thing that was music to our ears at TPG was that Chasten and Pete Buttigieg are points and miles fans.

(Photo by KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Buttigieg said, “.. my first job out of college, I got into a language program in Tunisia to study Arabic. I kind of wanted to see the world, and I can’t remember how I did it, but I figured out some routing where we actually went west instead of east from South Bend to Tunisia. And for the first time got to see places like Bangkok and it was pretty amazing. I don’t know if I could figure out all over again how I laundered those points and miles to do it, but it was exciting for somebody who didn’t have a lot of actual cash to use on travel.”

He told TPG that they’d used points to book their honeymoon in Bali using “creative routing,” with flights on United Airlines, Eva Air and Thai Airlines, “I can’t remember exactly. I have to admit that as proficient as I like to think I am, Chasten’s the real master, (and) points wizard.”

Take a look at the full interview.

Featured photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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