WESTFIELD, N.J. — As the Senate wrangled over last-minute machinations on its sweeping bipartisan transportation package Monday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stepped off a train here and was greeted like a celebrity.
“Welcome to Westfield,” three blond children shouted in unison, eliciting a wave from the 39-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Ind. Buttigieg stopped to greet two high schoolers, signing one’s Advanced Placement U.S. history book after she told him she got a “4” on her AP test. (That’s good.)
And then, Buttigieg hopped in an SUV to continue what has been a huge part of his first year at the Department of Transportation: Selling President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Senate agreement on infrastructure to voters.
Buttigieg, along with Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and senior White House aides, started off as the public face of White House negotiators, working in May on an earlier effort on infrastructure with Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, the West Virginia Republican who serves as ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
But that effort stalled, and in the end, a trio of White House aides led by White House counselor Steve Ricchetti brokered the deal, which includes $550 billion in new spending, with a group of 10 bipartisan senators. Twelve other senators also signed off on the deal.
Behind the scenes, though, Buttigieg was still at work, “burning up the phones,” he said, making hundreds of calls to members of both parties and both chambers as well as playing a role in the technical assistance his department was providing to those writing the bill.
He was also visiting districts like New Jersey’s 7th District, represented by Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and of the House Problem Solvers Caucus, which provided its blessing to the Senate negotiations.
There, Buttigieg and Malinowski toured an apartment construction site where future residents will be just steps from a New Jersey Transit line.
They rode transit with a group of labor officials who told them how they hope the bill will bring them new jobs and training for future generations of transit workers.
And they spoke to a room full of mayors who lamented the commute to New York City, a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation in which the trains are often late and the traffic is often untenable.
At that stop, Westfield Mayor Shelley Brindle, a 23-year veteran of New York City commuting, talked about the impact of the unpredictable journey — missed family dinners, bedtimes and children’s activities.
“I was never the mom I wanted to be when I walked in the door at night because of the stress of my daily commute,” she said.
She and other mayors are hopeful the bill will help speed the repair and replacement of the New Jersey to New York Hudson Tunnel, an aging structure that was flooded in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy. The existing two-track rail line has capacity for only 24 trains per hour, which has effectively barred much of Malinowski’s district from having direct service to New York.
Malinowski helped push through the House bill, which later became the legislative vehicle for the Senate bill, in July, and he’s disappointed that many of the policy provisions from that bill aren’t in the Senate package.
Still, he said, the Senate bill is “not everything I want, but it’s everything that we most desperately need.”
“The important thing is that the bill passes,” Malinowski said. “And my hope is that it will pass with overwhelming Democratic support … at the end of the day, we're not going to say no to massive investment in infrastructure.”
Buttigieg, too, says the bill is not perfect. Biden had called for “a generational investment” and got about two-thirds of what he first put forward.
“No one got everything that they wanted, which is the fundamental character of any compromise legislation,” Buttigieg said in a news conference during the visit to New Jersey. “But what we didn’t compromise on was the idea that there needs to be a historic level of investment to really change America’s readiness for the future.”
Still, the bill falls short of some of Biden’s key priorities. Biden had called for $20 billion in a program that would work to reconnect Black and Brown communities cut off from larger communities because of federal infrastructure investments. The deal includes $1 billion for that.
He had requested $174 billion to “win” the electric vehicle market, including $15 billion for EV infrastructure, $25 billion for zero-emission transit buses and $20 billion to electrify buses. The deal included $7.5 billion to build a network of EV charging infrastructure and $7.5 billion for zero- and low-emission school buses and ferries.
But Buttigieg is bullish. The $1 billion for reconnecting communities may not be what Biden originally asked for, but “it’s establishing that this is something we should do with federal dollars in a new way.”
He said he hopes to use the bureaucratic authority of his office to supplement that, by making equity part of its discretionary grant criteria to the degree possible and to “guide our priorities for the future.”
“I think future reauthorizations will key off of this moment in 2021, as we demonstrate that that’s an important use of federal dollars,” he said in an interview during the visit to the Garden State.
As for the EVs: The money may not be the mammoth investment in transforming the nation away from gasoline-powered vehicles, but the $7.5 billion that was included “establishes a new level of commitment to the idea that charging infrastructure is infrastructure.”
Roughly $105 billion of the $274 billion in transportation money in the bill would come in the form of discretionary grants, a fact that Buttigieg said provides “space” to help advance Biden’s priorities.
That optimism has helped him sell the package in places like Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Chicago. In all those cities, each of which faces its own unique transportation challenges, his message is fundamentally the same: We need this.
“That’s just the conversation with America,” he said.