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Secretary Buttigieg Remarks at U.S. Conference of Mayors 91st Winter Meeting, Washington, D.C.

Friday, January 20, 2023

What a treat. Thanks so much for the warm welcome. Thanks, Mayor Suarez, for your leadership and introduction. It always feels good to be among America's mayors. And we've got a lot to talk about, so thank you for having me through.

I'll just begin by recognizing that the job of mayor has only become more demanding and more vital since I wore the title not that long ago. And so, I want to salute the leadership of America's mayors.

I, as a mayor myself, always looked forward to the Winter Meeting as one of the things in the year I was always ready for, because it brought the chance to compare experiences with peers, but also the opportunity to connect with the administration and make sure that we understood how to use federal tools in order to help serve our residents—and of course, making sure that Washington understood our needs on the ground.

And through the pandemic and many other challenges, you have faced choices that were unimaginable to municipal leaders just a few years ago. But I'll also say that I can only imagine what it would have been like to be a mayor in the midst of an infrastructure season like the one that we're living in right now.

When I was mayor, we were still waiting with increasing cynicism each passing year for the so-called "infrastructure week" that would come and go without a result in this city. And that's why I'm so glad to be here today. Not just because I'm always glad to be around fellow mayors, but because I'm now in a position to share with you updates on how we're doing, and a little bit on how we can do more together as we enter the second year of President Biden's historic program of infrastructure investment. And in the middle of what I believe will be remembered in American history as an infrastructure decade.

It's been a little over a year since President Biden signed that infrastructure package, and precisely two years since this administration came in and the president took office. And it's been a remarkable year. Across the country—often in partnership with city leaders—we have begun improvement on 3,700 bridges; we've improved over 69,000 miles of roads and highways; we funded over 1,000 zero-emission buses around the country. And we are just getting started.

In the year and years ahead, we're going to move more and more from concept to execution, from application to announcement, to groundbreaking, to ribbon-cutting. And yes, I share the instinctive mayoral impatience for getting to that ribbon-cutting moment.

We are going to continue working with all levels of government and, wherever possible, working on a bipartisan basis just as we did with major, major help from you to get this package through Congress in the first place. And yes, that includes multiple opportunities—amounting to billions of dollars in investment—where there's the possibility for cities to come directly, directly to the Department of Transportation for direct federal support. (applause)

So, I believe this is one of the best times ever to be involved in transportation in America. It's a chance, not only to imagine, but to implement; not only to dream, but to design, and then to build. It is a season of America putting its money where our mouth is.

But we should also talk about the other side of the coin in American transportation. This is one of the most promising and dynamic times ever for transportation in this country—but also one of the most challenging, as many of you have experienced firsthand. Aging infrastructure has already caught up to us in many places, and across all of the modes of transportation. A slow-moving crisis was then exacerbated by a once-in-a-century pandemic, and by industry practices across the transportation sector that have left very little resilience in many of our most important systems.

We've seen the results of these long-standing problems materialize in many ways—from shipping containers backed up at our ports, to airline cancellations during peak travel seasons.

We have confronted those challenges, and we will continue to do so. But they are not going to be resolved overnight.

Today, I want to focus on what is maybe the most acute and devastating problem in our entire transportation system. And I want to focus on it partly because it deserves more attention than it gets, and partly because of your indispensable role in confronting it.

We need to talk about roadway deaths in America.

Somehow this issue gets dramatically less attention than many of the other transportation issues we face—from airline headaches, to container shipping bottlenecks. And I think that might actually be precisely because, when it comes to roadway deaths, we're so used to it. But we shouldn't be.

Many of you, for example, are rightly focused on confronting the scourge of gun violence. I want to remind you that the loss of life in traffic crashes in our communities is almost identical in its proportions to the loss of life to gun violence. Almost 43,000 people died in traffic crashes in 2021, and preliminary data are telling us we're going to see similar numbers for 2022.

It is not inevitable; it is not acceptable. And it deserves our sustained attention, especially when you consider that this is another area, like gun violence, where Americans experience more pain and worse results than our peers in other developed countries.

Recently, I met a group of safety advocates. And it is impossible to listen to their stories without it leaving an impression on you. The fifth-grader named Sammy, who was killed on the street on his way to soccer practice. The mom and U.S. foreign service officer who came back here from a stint working in a war zone in Ukraine, only to be killed by a truck riding her bike.

But of course, you don't need to hear other people's stories to know how important this is. Because if any one of us in this room is to count the number of people we know killed in traffic crashes, we'll have to use more than both hands.

We are so used to it, it is almost as if we have spent our lives in a country going through a war.

I want you to know what we're doing to change that, and I want to ask for your help.

About a year ago, our Department put forward our National Roadway Safety Strategy. And we're at work right now to execute that strategy along with our many partners, including local government. I

encourage you to get to know this strategy. It's got five areas of focus: safer drivers, safer roads, safer speeds, safer vehicles, and a better standard of post-crash care.

Our ultimate goal, which we've officially adopted, is to get traffic deaths down to zero.

I want to pause on that goal, because if you're like me—if you focused your administration on specific and attainable goals—this may sound strange, lofty, or even absurd. But it shouldn't—and here's why.

First, I would ask you how many traffic deaths you would consider to be acceptable in theory. And here, I hope we all agree the answer is zero. But I know that might seem like an unrealistic ideal. So, let's turn to a very real concrete example from another mode of transportation: aviation.

For all of the headaches that we have had in aviation, this is a mode of transportation which relies on rocketing passengers through the atmosphere, close to the speed of sound, several miles above the ground, in a metal tube propelled by igniting thousands of gallons of explosive jet fuel. (laughter)

It's how most of you got here. (laughter) And it is not uncommon—in fact, more common than not—to see years where the number of deaths in U.S. commercial aviation is zero. Let's think about that.

And the most important reason for adopting Vision Zero—and the one I hope will appeal the most to you as mayors—is just adopting that goal and taking it seriously has been shown to yield concrete results.

No one thinks zero can happen overnight, but we have seen that when cities aim for zero, they start getting closer to it. Fewer crashes. Fewer fatalities. Specific measurable, meaningful change. In fact, while we are far off from zero traffic deaths nationally, several cities have not only adopted that goal, but achieved it. And as is so often the case, mayors have led the way.

Last year, Jersey City, the second largest city in America's most densely populated state, saw zero traffic deaths on its roads. Mayor Fulop and his team deserve great credit for their focus on safety.

Hoboken, nearby, had its fourth straight year with zero traffic deaths. Mayor Bhalla, that is a remarkable accomplishment for which you and your whole community should be proud.

In the Midwest, Evanston, Illinois, and Edina, Minnesota, have both seen several years without a single traffic death thanks to robust complete streets programs, anti-speeding efforts, and other measures. So, Mayor Bliss, Mayor Hovland, we salute you.

No, we won't get to zero deaths nationwide anytime soon. But there were seven mid-sized cities that saw zero deaths for at least five years during the 2010s. So, what if a few years from now, we could say that that number had grown to 15 cities? Or 30? Or 50?

When you ask the mayors of those cities how they did it, they point to common solutions: lower speed limits in residential areas, protected bike lanes and bus lanes, curb extensions, high-visibility crosswalks, more frequent traffic signals. But also using the moral authority and visibility of the mayor's office to encourage a fundamentally safer culture for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians.

So, here at the Winter Meeting where leaders share strategies that work, I hope you'll take the opportunity to do that when it comes to road safety, and continue the dialogue with us at DOT as well.

And I want to emphasize that in this as in so many other shared policy areas—around climate, around equity, around economic development—we are not just cheering you on; we are funding this good work.

There's never going to be enough funding to support every good idea and project. But there's more than we've ever had before. And we continue to proceed based on the principle that the great project ideas will not come out of Washington, but more of the funding should.

Just in the year since I was last before this gathering, we've rolled out billions for safety efforts through our discretionary grant programs.

Our Reconnecting Communities Program is going to help improve safety in historically marginalized communities that have often faced the highest rates of traffic deaths.

Our RAISE and INFRA grants have funded dozens of safety projects in cities and towns of every size across the country. Just last year, I got to be with Mayor Castor in Tampa, Mayor Bynum in Tulsa, Mayor Warren in Fontana—and so many more of you, to celebrate the projects we were able to support.

Our CRISI program, our railway crossing elimination program—which I know will be a particular interest to those smaller communities where folks are waiting for way too long for those rail crossings and there's a safety issue at stake—is going to help upgrade or eliminate those dangerous crossings.

And in just a few days, we will be announcing the winners of the first year of our Safe Streets and Roads for All Program, which delivers funds again, directly, to those local communities. And by the way, a lot of that funding is for planning, so I hope you'll talk with your public works and transportation officials, and your communities, about how to prepare for next year's round of funding. Because my favorite thing about where we stand in this infrastructure law is that we are just getting into year two out of five. There's a lot more where this came from.

And it's not just about the programs with safety in their name. Done right, every infrastructure choice is also a safety choice. Just like it's a choice about our economy and about our climate. So please, keep innovating, keep advancing, and we will keep supporting you however we can.

I truly believe we're going to look back on these years—these years when you were leading your cities—as a pivotal time for our country, and for American communities. And I know that those communities are in good hands.

So, I'm looking forward to our continued work together to make the absolute most of this historic season. And I can't wait to see what we're going to achieve working together.

Thank you for your leadership, and thank you for the chance to address you again.