How Much Will Buttigieg Change Federal Transportation Policy?

The USDOT secretary is making big promises, but an entrenched system makes it difficult to implement long-lasting, systemic change.

May 19, 2021, 5:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Federal Transit Administration

Federal TIGER grants have provided nearly $9 billion to local and regional infrastructure projects. | Bossi / Flickr

Writing in Governing, Jake Blumgart assesses the potential for significant change in the U.S. Department of Transportation as newly appointed secretary Pete Buttigieg champions more diverse modes. "Many of the seemingly groundbreaking gestures the former Democratic presidential aspirant is making, like riding his bike to cabinet meetings or denouncing the racist history of highway policy, have precedent during Barack Obama’s presidency." The department, writes Blumgart, has historically done "little more than overseeing the distribution of funds based on strict formulas that allocate resources to the states." Much of its funding is spent on roadways, and "[m]ost of its tens of thousands of workers are air traffic controllers."

The problem with Democratic administrations, says Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, is that "[t]hey have so much confidence that they seem to not feel the need to make actual structural change that will survive them." Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who served under President Obama, began shifting department policy by prioritizing transit and bike and pedestrian projects through the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program, but "during Donald Trump’s administration all such spending was eliminated from TIGER’s books." Proposals to implement a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax by LaHood and Buttigieg have been rejected by their respective administrations

President Biden's infrastructure plan, with its "massive allocations for intercity passenger rail, mass transit, and motor vehicle safety," could  be "the most dramatic change to federal transportation policy since the 1950s," but supporters worry that the Democrats' tight majority in Congress and the Senate's affinity for compromise could lead to a "dramatically downsized bill."

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