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Secretary Buttigieg Delivers Remarks on Transportation Infrastructure at the Forum Club of the Palm Beaches

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Thank you. Thank you for the warm reception. Thank you for the chance to be here. I have been looking forward to this for quite some time, and I'm particularly honored to know the distinction and the diversity of the people who are attending.

I should also begin by acknowledging that it can seem a little strange to stand up in front of room, at a time like this, and talk about roads and bridges. [laughter] And I recognize that. 

We are all transfixed by the pain and the violence brought about in the horrific terrorist attacks by Hamas against Israeli civilians—and everything that is now playing out. 

There is unbelievable pain and fear, not only in Israel, but [also], I know, for so many here, for whom this hits very close to home. And I'm glad that our President, who is on his way to Israel, spoke with moral clarity about the evil nature of what was visited upon civilians in those attacks, and was unequivocal about our support for our friend and ally, Israel. 

And I'm also glad that he will be in Jordan, emphasizing the importance of insisting that Hamas does not, cannot, represent all Palestinians. And that sympathy for the legitimate aspirations of Israeli and Palestinian civilians alike is inseparable from unequivocal condemnation of the targeting of civilians. And it strikes me that the most important struggle right now is between hate and hope—and that much will depend on which prevails.

Fear, hate, violence, anti-Semitism. It feels like the world is on fire. And the Middle East, of course, is not all there is to it: here in the United States, we are contending with the fact that the most recent leader of this country is standing trial for fraud. And at least as of a minute ago, when I checked my phone, we don't have a functioning House of Representatives. It is… a lot. And I come here to talk about transportation. [laughter]

But if it seems like there's a dissonance in that, I do want to emphasize a principle that guides the work that I do, and that our Department does, and really that our whole administration does at times like this: which is the importance—even in times like this; especially in times like this—of taking care of the basics.

What I mean by that is that the profound and consuming important things that we concern ourselves with as human beings—from navigating the pain of living in difficult times, to making good on aspirations of personal growth and family prosperity, or entrepreneurial success—all of that depends on having certain very basic things taken care of, so you don't have to worry about them that much. The less you have to think, in the course of going about your day, about clean, safe drinking water and where it's going to come from; or whether your internet connection is working; or whether your morning commute is going to get you to work on time and affordably… The less you're worrying about that, the more you can deal with everything else that life throws at you. And that, at its core, is what I would call our philosophy of infrastructure: We are here to take care of the basics.

But taking care of the basics is not basic. Enormous resources, enormous effort, and right now, enormous investments—as well as enormous amounts of technology and innovation and change—go into making sure that our roads and our bridges, our ports and our airports, our trains and our transit, actually work. And so, what I'd like to do for a few minutes—and then I'm really looking forward to the conversation—but I want to start by sharing some of that effort with you, and an assessment of how we're doing.

What I want to give you is a brief accounting of the state of American transportation, and what we've been doing these last almost three years. 

Because of the disorienting speed of change since this administration arrived—and really over the last five years, at least—I need to start by reminding us of how much has changed just in the two to three years we've been here. And a lot of the best ways to see this come from looking at the example of aviation. 

Airlines are in the news a lot. Let's remember that when we got here, 2021, when we arrived in this administration in January, airlines were in the news a lot then too—because everybody thought they might be going out of business. 

This country had to assemble about $50 billion, across two administrations, just to make sure the airlines in this country didn't cease to exist. We intervened—and it worked. And by 2022, just our second year here, we went from being worried about airlines collapsing, to being worried about how best to push the airlines to adequately serve the demand that had roared back. 

This year, 2023, we saw the busiest summer of air travel in US history, measured by passengers going through TSA checkpoints. And so, we've pivoted from keeping the US. aviation sector alive, to focusing on performance and passenger rights and maintaining our safety record. And I'm glad to say we've seen some of the biggest improvements in passenger rights in decades. And the cancelations are below what they were before the pandemic. 

There was a lot more work to do, which I'd be happy to expand on. But my point is just to stress the pace of change, and the ways that we have had to adapt. And the trajectory of air travel, of course, reflects the economy more generally—which went from being flat on its back in early 2021, to expanding at a speed that we wouldn't have thought possible just a few months prior. Which meant, among other things, enormous pressure on our supply chains. And here, too, we had to act. 

And we saw results. It was this time of year, just two years ago, October, when some cable networks were proclaiming that Christmas is going to be canceled because nothing could be delivered. [laughter] Remember that? Those images of the hundred ships that all launched from Asia, pretty much at the same time, waiting their turn at West coast ports? 

But by the time the holidays arrived, thanks principally to the workers at those ports—and also with help from our administration—we not only saw our supply chains working; we saw an all-time record high in the level of goods that moved through America's ports. So here as well there is a lot of work to do, but remarkable change and remarkable progress in a short amount of time. 

So much has changed so quickly. But our basic purpose is very consistent and very steady. The environment isn't simple. The work isn't simple. But the priorities are simple: To make transportation safer. To use transportation to support economic growth. To ensure transportation develops in an equitable fashion. To make sure transportation is part of the solution to climate change. And to make sure that innovation in the field of transportation unfolds in ways that are good for those four priorities of safety, jobs, equity, and climate. 

So, what I'd like to do is very briefly touch on what we've done in each of those areas—and in particular, make plain how we are using the once-in-a-generation, trillion dollar, Biden infrastructure package—which was passed with bipartisan support—to deliver on our goals in each of those areas.

I'll start with safety, because it's the reason my department exists. And again, it's important to note what has been achieved there—not just by our administration, but by our country over the years. If you just think about it, the fact of aviation safety is an extraordinary American achievement: The fact that the safest way to get anywhere is to enter a metal tube with about 100 other people, and be propelled by setting highly flammable liquids on fire, through the air, at the speed of sound, a mile above the surface of the ground. [laughter] Right?

Pretty amazing that that is the safest way to travel. [laughter] 

Didn't start out that way. What has been achieved there is extraordinary, and builds on a lot of lessons that were, frankly, learned the hard way. What we're working to do is keep it up. And that means the people and the equipment that it's going to take to keep that up. That means making sure that we're hiring more air traffic controllers—one of many, many reasons, if not the sexiest or most famous, why we cannot afford a government shutdown, which would shut down our training center—but also technology, which is a big part of what we are seeking to do in our budget. 

Railroad safety, which was not something most people thought about before the Norfolk Southern derailment in east Palestine. And I think most people were unaware of the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good: which is the fact that deaths in railroading—apart from collisions with cars, which I'll talk about in a moment—are in single digits, and we're pushing them towards zero. The bad: which is that there's still a derailment—more than one derailment—a day, and there always has been, in this country. And the ugly: which is some of them lead to hazardous material releases that terrorize communities.

And a lot has to change. And much of it will, if the bipartisan Railway Safety Act that is currently waiting its turn in a Congress—that obviously can't get to it until it gets to some other things—really needs to deal with. It's not that long before we're a year from East Palestine. We're doing everything we can as a department; we need help in Cngress. 

But then there’s roadway safety. So, we've successfully established a norm where, in a typical year, we lose zero airline passengers. We're working toward getting from single digits to zero in terms of deaths in railroading. And statistically, we've lost at least one American in the time since I stepped onto this stage—on our roadways. 

We lose about a 737 full of Americans—that is to say, between 100 Americans and 200 Americans—every day. It rivals gun violence as a leading cause of premature death in this country: 40,000 people a year. I could do statistics, but all of us know people, probably, who have been lost in car crashes. Just think about that. 

And because of that, we think of it as normal. It doesn't have to be. 

So, we are hard at work making sure that we're investing in a roadway safety strategy that includes safer vehicles, safer streets, safer speeds, safer people—drivers, in other words—and a better standard of post-crash care. And we have an extraordinary alliance coming together of players, because it can't just be the federal government—we're talking about local communities designing a better future. 

By the way, I should note that when I was mayor, and we set out to design safer roads, we drew on the experience of West Palm Beach, and a conversion to two-way streets that we learned a lot from. And now we're trying to help cities across the country do it. And as I speak, this month, we're delivering the newest round of Safe Streets For All grants, which are going out to hundreds of communities. The rise in roadway deaths has stopped—and reversed just a little bit. But we’ve got a long way to go. 

So those are some of the things that we're wrestling with when it comes to safety. Then, there's the economic power and opportunity associated with infrastructure. First of all, of course, job creation: it's not an accident that that bipartisan infrastructure law's official name is the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—accent on the “jobs.” 

And good-paying jobs. Jobs that are available whether you've got a college degree or not. And one of the best parts of my job is talking with people not just about the income that they're earning, but the pride that they are building. I was in L.A., where there's a program at LAX that goes out of its way to make sure that they hire people from the same zip code as LAX—which is an economically challenged zip code—and give them the chance to get into the building trades, which is where the good paying jobs are. And I met people who never imagined that they'd be able to make this kind of income, who are now buying homes, putting their kids through school. And this story is being replicated and multiplied across communities in every state of the country.

We have so far funded 37,000 projects, just through the infrastructure law, just so far in this administration. About 31,000 of those have to do with transportation. And every one of those is creating opportunity. But the other thing I would mention that gets a little bit less attention and a little bit less coverage, is that good transportation policy is part of our fight against inflation.
A top economic priority that the President has established is keeping prices under control. One of the biggest things that has pushed prices up is shipping costs. And one of the best things we can do to alleviate that is to invest in our supply chains, which is why so many of those 37,000 projects are going to things that are related to our supply chains—from improving trucking corridors on our interstates, to improvements that I'll get a chance to see tomorrow at Port Miami. 

Then there's climate. And I don't need to tell people in South Florida about how important climate is. This is up close and personal. Just in my lifetime: I remember what it was like in science class in the 90s—I'm definitely dating myself in both directions here—but I remember in science class, learning about climate change as a prediction. I know there's high school students here today: They don't experience this as a prediction that scientists think might happen one day—it's a thing that is happening and hurting people today. 

And part of what it's hurting is transportation. Everything from the level of the Mississippi River being a challenge for barge traffic; to the transit system in the Pacific Northwest having to shut down because temperatures that we didn't even think of as being physically possible there threatened to melt the equipment if they kept it running; to all of the things that have impacted Floridians in recent years.

But of course, it's not just about the impact of climate on transportation. It's the impact of transportation on climate. In the entire American economy, the sector which contributes the most climate pollution, the most greenhouse gases, is transportation. Which to me is a call for transportation to aspire to be the biggest part of the solution.

And that's what's at stake in the work we are doing on everything from making it more affordable and easier to own and use an electric car; to the work that we are doing to decarbonize harder to decarbonize forms of transportation like shipping and aviation that are going to have to go through a lot of technological evolution; to simpler things, like making it easier and more affordable to take advantage of transit, or making sure that it is safe for people to choose to commute to work by bike, or active transportation like walking. 

There's a real imperative here, and a real opportunity here. My favorite thing about the climate imperative, as it relates to transportation, is an opportunity to break the old false choice between climate and jobs. Because we're creating a lot of climate jobs out there. And I think that's the right mentality to approach this with: economic opportunity as well as climate necessity.

Then, equity. And the simple vision is that the proportions of this infrastructure package are so great, that if we make sure everyone has a fair shot at the opportunity that it creates, the 2020s will be remembered as a time when some of the biggest wealth gaps in this country—between rural and urban, between Black and white, and other such wealth gaps—started to close. I believe we can do that. I just had an amazing meeting earlier today with people in the small business investment community, who are working to capitalize some of the businesses, including minority-owned and women-owned small businesses, working to get a shot at some of the contracting opportunities—from installing an electric vehicle charger, to doing accounting work for a large engineering firm involved in a tunnel project. It's incredibly exciting. 

And while we're at it, we're also being attentive to the fact that where we put the infrastructure, and who it serves, matters. And it has mattered in the past in a way that has sometimes hurt people. And I have raised this, and it's proven to be more controversial than I expected—not for the purpose of making anyone feel guilty, but for the purpose of animating and energizing our process of doing something about it. And we are. 

Actually in Tampa, we're making an investment to deal with an interchange that went right into a low income and largely minority neighborhood that could be done better. In Detroit, we're helping take I-375, that cuts like a gash through the city, make it into a boulevard: surface it in a way that will accommodate traffic perfectly well, but help to reverse the demolition of the Paradise Valley and Black Bottom neighborhoods in that city. In Buffalo, we were with activists who wept as they described having worked since the 1980s to try to get help to do something about the way the Kensington Expressway divided their city from one neighborhood to the other, basically cut off the principally Black neighborhood there from where most of the jobs were. And we're decking over it, with the State of New York, in a way that will make nobody worse off, and make a lot of people better off. 

These are things that can happen when we pay attention to the consequences, from an equity perspective, of the work that we do. 

So I mentioned safety, jobs, climate, equity—and then innovation, which, even as a transportation nerd, I think is mostly important not for its own sake—not because it's neat, although it is [laughter]—but because of what it's going to mean for safety, equity, climate and jobs. The potential of safety technologies in vehicles; the potential of electrification and decarbonization; the progress that's being made on advanced air mobility—which is the term of art that has emerged in the aviation sector to refer to what I would describe as flying cars, basically—drones; I mean, things that are very challenging and very exciting in their potential. 

And I think our responsibility is to shape those developments. To make sure that they flourish, that they work in a way that benefits the economy and that benefits the country. Because some of these changes are happening so fast, that I think we'll really be surprised by them. I think the 2020s will be remembered as bringing about probably the most swift transformation in transportation technologies since the jet age. 

So that's just a little bit about where we came from, where we are now, what we're working on, and the difference that it's making. And I think that's pretty good for three years work. But I also think it's pretty clear that we've got our work cut out for us. 

And the other thing I want to emphasize before taking my seat and getting into more of a discussion, is that everybody's invested in this, whether you professionally work in the transportation sector or not. All of us have so much to say, because all of us depend on being able to move around to get through life. All of us—to come back to the beginning of my remarks—depend on certain basics being a little bit easier, so that we can focus our attention on some of the things that are a little harder: from carrying the weight of world events, to raising children.

That's what we think we're out here doing. And that's what I hope people—especially the kind of civically active people who are at a gathering like this—sense your role in. Because even though so much is happening in the administration, and so much is happening in terms of what our department is doing, most of the most important decisions about what to do with these federal dollars are being made closer to home. They're being made in state legislatures, city councils, unglamorous and incredibly important places like transit and airport boards, many of which you can invite yourself to show up at, and speak, and say your mind. And I hope you do.

So, I invite you to join us on this incredible journey that America is on. I thank you for the chance to be with you. And I'm really looking forward to our conversation. Thanks for having me.