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Pete Buttigieg: The right man for transportation?

After his dark horse run for the Democratic presidential ticket earlier in the year, Pete Buttigieg became a household name beyond the city limits of South Bend, Indiana. The country got to know who Mayor Pete was and what he stood for.

And while critics will say that Biden’s pick to lead the Department for Transportation (DOT) does not bring any directly relevant national experience with him, his time as mayor and run at the White House give us an idea of what his agenda might be.

The president-elect announced his nomination at a press conference on Wednesday this week, seemingly acknowledging that Buttigieg will have much more on his plate than would normally be expected of a transportation secretary: “Pete’s going to help build back better with jobs and hope, with vision and execution.”

He accepted the nomination with a call to bring America’s crumbling infrastructure into the 21st century. “Americans,” he said, “shouldn’t settle for less than our peers in the developed world when it comes to our roads and bridges, railways and transit systems.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Buttigieg will become the first openly gay member of the cabinet and at 38 years old, one of its youngest.

His comprehensive $1trn infrastructure plan outlined during his White House bid was widely praised by industry experts. It included doubling funding for transit-orientated federal grants, more bike lanes and improved pedestrian infrastructure, a focus on highway maintenance rather than expansion and ‘Vision Zero’, a bold strategy aimed at eliminating all traffic-related deaths through the funding of projects that prioritized safety, while defunding those that did not.

Buttigieg also eyed fixing the insolvent Highway Trust Fund, which government auditors say requires a further $107bn over the next five years. His plan to introduce a digital tracking and taxing system for vehicle-miles traveled, with breaks for those on lower incomes, would actually generate more money than the current gas tax as vehicles become more efficient, according to policy experts.

The overall plan received one of the highest scores of any candidate from the policy think tank Transportation for America.

His time as mayor wrought significant successes for the city of South Bend too. Drawing on his consultancy experience at McKinsey, Buttigieg used data-driven efficiencies to improve city infrastructure.

South Bend became one of the first cities to strike a deal with LimeBike, the dockless bike service, and it pioneered garbage trucks with automated bin pick-ups, giving out-of-work garbage pickers new jobs in the city. His ‘Street Smarts’ initiative, which removed one-way streets, widened sidewalks, built more bike paths and narrowed downtown traffic lanes, was credited with boosting the areas economic activity post Great Recession.

The nomination has not, however, been greeted warmly by all quarters. During the Democratic contest Buttigieg was accused of not doing enough to tackle racial inequalities within the city, one of the reasons he failed to connect with young and Black voters. Activists point to the fact that less than 1% of construction contracts were awarded to minority-owned businesses, and his apparent mishandling of the death of an 11-year-old Black boy at a ‘Street Smarts’ intersection. Jordan Giger, a Black Lives Matter activist from South Bend said Mayor Pete’s “huge blind spot to economic inclusion for minority businesses” was concerning, especially while “we’re facing this huge crisis of inequality.”

Whatever criticisms may have been levied at Biden’s latest cabinet pick, he is certainly less controversial than another former mayor previously tipped for the DOT, Rahm Emanuel. And unlike Emanuel, unions have been broadly supportive of Buttigieg.

When accepting his undoubtedly significant nomination, Buttigieg said he felt the “eyes of history”. If confirmed, he can expect to feel the eyes of working Americans. Time will tell if they will look upon him favorably.

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