U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made a pitstop in Indianapolis Thursday to tout the investments of the President Joe Biden administration, and in particular, a city project that Biden’s 2021 infrastructure law is helping pay for.
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending package, known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, covers a broad spectrum of what constitutes “infrastructure,” from roads to broadband to drinking water. About half the spending simply re-ups existing federal spending levels in these areas; the other half is new money.
Hundreds of millions of new dollars have already flowed to Indiana agencies and local governments concerned with fixing roads, replacing lead pipes and bringing high-speed internet to every Hoosier. The impact of the money is only just starting to be felt, as agencies spent much of the first year planning how to use it.
“We are very much at the dawn of an infrastructure decade, and for a place that screams transportation infrastructure like Indianapolis here in the Crossroads of America, this is going to mean great opportunity,” Buttigieg said outside the Cummins headquarters downtown, joined by Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett and U.S. Rep. Andre Carson, D-Indianapolis.
The project being highlighted Thursday, for example, won’t come to fruition for at least two years. The $46.5 million project encompasses a suite of safety-focused road improvements, including converting eight downtown two-way streets to one-way streets, making hundreds of curbs more disability-accessible, and fixing 3.5 miles of sidewalks and 5.5 miles of bike lanes. Overall, the federal money makes but a small dent in Indianapolis’ overwhelming road needs.
After the fanfare, Buttigieg spent some time with IndyStar to talk infrastructure, the White House, and future aspirations.
Question: What do you want to see Indiana take more advantage of from the Biden infrastructure law? What do you want to see Indiana do that it hasn’t already?
Answer: I think Indiana is in a great position to continue building on this success. As I said in my remarks, winning this grant is a big deal for Indianapolis. And I’ve seen so much just even in the last couple of days, from the vision for growth at Gary’s airport to the safety improvements next to a high school for crossing where a railroad goes by in Elkhart, to what’s taking place right here with the conversion to two-way streets. This is just the beginning. Between our formula dollars that states will make a lot of decisions on, and our direct discretionary grants where people can apply right to us at headquarters, there’s much more potential for improvements on everything from roads and bridges, to airports and ports. Maybe people don’t think ports when they think Indiana, but one of the first port projects I visited was in Tell City where a river port is very important to Perry County. And there’s a lot on the Lake Michigan port here, too. So really any part of the state, any form of transportation you can think of, there’s a lot at stake.
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Question: How about passenger rail?
Answer: There’s some applications that are being looked at right now. And as you know, our president is famously a huge supporter of passenger rail. So am I. And we have right now, in this infrastructure package, the most funding we’ve had since Amtrak was created. Much of it will need to go to maintaining what we have and a backlog of repair. But some of it can go to preparing for the future and improved service frequency, maybe even new routes. The Midwest is a great place to build up passenger rail, because of the population patterns you see around this region.
Question: You mentioned the rail crossings. We see a lot of stories about these super long like cargo trains causing blockages for hours. What is the administration trying to do about that?
Answer: Several things. One is a railroad crossing elimination program, which, this is the first round we’ve ever done, including grants for Hammond and Schererville, and I imagine will continue to be important to Indiana because there are railroad crossings all over this state. I know there are where I grew up. If we can eliminate them entirely through an overpass or underpass, that’s one example of how federal dollars could make a big difference for safety. Now, it’s not just about eliminating them; we can also improve existing crossings to make them safer. And back on the other side of the house, when it comes to how we engage, push and regulate railroads, also taking a hard look at the length of these trains. Because when you get trains that are two miles, sometimes three miles or even longer, and they get slowed or stopped, that is a huge issue. And it’s not just a convenience issue, when you have an emergency vehicle that’s blocked, that’s a safety issue too.
Question: How much are you seeing inflation take a bite out of the Biden infrastructure money?
Answer: Certainly we’re concerned about project costs, and we need to make sure we keep those costs under control. And it’s one of the reasons why the president made the fight against inflation a central priority, and it’s paying off in terms of the lower inflation we’re seeing right now. But I’d also say, when we invest in good transportation infrastructure, that’s part of the long-run fight against inflation because better supply chains mean lower shipping costs, and often shipping costs are one of the main things affecting the prices that we see on the shelf.
Question: You made the leap from being a small city mayor to the White House. What’s that been like for you? Any surprises, any hard lessons you’ve learned?
Answer: I’ll always believe that being a mayor prepares you like nothing else could for public service ― that experience of being on the front lines of issue after issue, including, of course, a lot of transportation issues. But the scale and scope of the U.S. Department of Transportation is unique. We work on everything from roads and bridges to commercial space travel and hazardous materials. And so my job is to make sure that our amazing team of 55,000 people are able to succeed in their mission as public servants and to help make sure President Biden’s vision is a success as he continues working to make sure that those dollars get out the door to communities that need them and to make sure they create good-paying American jobs.
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Question: Why take this message to Indiana? Why visit here?
Answer: Of course I have a certain level of attachment to Indiana. This is also a place that just is uniquely dependent on transportation infrastructure in so many ways. There’s a lot to be proud of here, from the airport to the tradition of the automotive sector here, and again, whether you’re talking about transit, or trains or roads and bridges, airports or even ports, they’re a very important part of Indiana’s story. So it’s a great way, even in a short trip, to bring together so many of the different themes that we have been focused on in this administration.
Question: Do you miss living here? (Buttigieg moved to Michigan in 2022.)
Answer: I do, you know, I miss friends and people that it’s been great to be reunited with the last couple of days. I’m already contriving how to get here a little more often after being reminded of how much I love the place and the people.
Question: Representative Carson called you “America’s future.” I know everyone’s wondering, do you have any future plans for elected office?
Answer: Nothing right now beyond the job that the President’s asked me to do. It’s taken about 110% of my abilities and it’s, I think, the best job in the federal government. I know I can’t do it forever. But right now it’s certainly keeping me busy.
Question: Why is it the best job in federal government?
Answer: Because we get to build the future that we’re going to depend on for the rest of our lives. I mean, literally shaping the infrastructure that will affect everything from round-the-world journeys to everyday commutes. And as a former mayor, I love being involved in work that is ultimately so close to home for so many people. And having been a mayor knocking on the door of the building I know lead, I also know how much of a difference it can make to support communities that are looking for that help and I love being in a position to actually do that.
Contact IndyStar state government and politics reporter Kayla Dwyer at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @kayla_dwyer17.