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Transcript: Opening Remarks From Secretary Buttigieg’s Visit to Morgan State University

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Thank you very much, President Wilson, for the warm welcome and for the introduction. Your vision and your pride in this institution is contagious, and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to see the good work happening here, and to spend some time with you, as well, and hear about where you are taking this university to even higher heights. 

Dean Barton, thank you very much – I know you’ll be guiding our discussion as well. [mic feedback] I’m going to get a little bit away from that speaker. [laughter] 

Most of all, let me thank all of you for the opportunity to join you. We just had, along with the State Commissioner of Transportation and a number of guests from my department, a wonderful opportunity just to glimpse—I know we just scratched the surface of it—but to see the work that is going on: from the driving and biking simulation, to the autonomous wheelchair development, to the robotic dog. I wasn’t quite sure what a robot dog was going to mean (laughter). But now I understand the implication that that has for blind and low vision individuals and the equity implications as well.  

And it’s a reminder of how federal research dollars can be put to such good and important use in the hands of institutions like Morgan State. We are proud to partner with you, and we are especially proud to partner with an HBCU of this historic standing in order to deliver transportation solutions for the future.  

I’ll be very brief by way of opening remarks—I’m really looking forward to the Q&A and the conversations we’ll be able to have. But I just want to mention a couple of the things that are on my mind as I come here.  

First of all, I have what I believe to be the best job in Federal government. Because as Secretary of Transportation, I get to be involved in building the future. That has always been an exciting job, especially for—I know I’m around a lot of like-minded people who enjoy geeking out on engineering and transportation.  

It’s exciting to be the Secretary of trains, planes, and automobiles, and a lot of other things. But even more so in this moment, which is probably the best moment to ever work in transportation—at least I would argue—because of the President’s historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the generational investment that that represents. We’ll be able to do more for transportation in the U.S. than at any time since the 1950s.  

Speaking of the 1950s, we recently honored Dr. Gladys B. West on our transportation Hall of Fame at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Now, she’s someone who, until recently, went mostly without recognition. But worked in the Federal government—even before the Department of Transportation even existed—and we had a wonderful conversation recently.  

She’s getting on into her 90s, but is still sharp as a tack, and described what it was like being one of the very first Black scientific experts working for the government in the Department of the Navy, working on a technology that eventually became GPS: something that billions of people use and benefit from today, thanks to her work, and thanks to her contributions. And belatedly, but better late than never, we’ve had the opportunity to honor her work.  

And I’m mentioning that to say that there is nothing new about the contributions of the technical expertise of Black experts, professionals, and leaders in transportation. But it is going to be a little bit different going forward. We will see many more examples, with this generation of researchers, of the kind of pathbreaking work that she did.  

But what we’re not going to repeat, is letting her be one of a tiny handful of people like her in the field. And what we’re not going to repeat is taking decades for that work to be recognized for what it is. We’re going to do it differently this time around.  

And that’s where you come in: the kinds of researchers, professionals, faculty, staff, and students here at Morgan State are going to be on the leading edge of a new generation of transportation investment, where we are going to need your talent more than ever: first of all, to simply enable us to be able to deliver on the promise of this moment, to take 600 billion dollars of federal funding and actually turn it into value across this country.  

Some are doubting whether it’s possible—even though we finally got the funding lined up—whether it’s actually going to be possible to deliver. Because they are wondering if America has the skills and the workforce to actually do it. And that means we as a country cannot afford to leave any talent on the table. And the talent that is being cultivated here will be a vital part of the leadership that will get this work done.  

And the other reason it’s so important is that we are going to make sure that transportation is an engine of equity in our time. And we know that transportation can cut both ways. We’re in Baltimore; I’m sure there are some folks here who are familiar, just to take one example, with the road to nowhere in West Baltimore, which divided a Black neighborhood which, there is some evidence, went precisely where it went for that reason.  

So we’ve seen the harm that can be done with transportation infrastructure that cuts the wrong way. We’ve also seen the enormous benefit that can come from transportation that does connect people to opportunity. We were just celebrating with the Mayor, a couple of months ago, the East-West Connector they were able to fund with over $20 million dollars from our RAISE Grant program, just to take one example.  

And then the jobs that we’re going to create. The opportunities we’re going to create. The businesses that are going to grow. Even if you’re not in the STEM field at all but you’re about entrepreneurship, there will be an opportunity to cultivate a new generation of businesses, including a new generation of Black-owned businesses, delivering value for the American people and delivering generational wealth for the owners and the workers of those businesses.  

That’s what we’re able to do right now. But we can’t do it without you. That’s why we are turning to you, to help us deliver that value. And that’s part of why I'm so excited to be here. So let me keep my promise and keep it brief and get right to the questions. But again, I want to thank you for the chance to be here on the ground, seeing the work that you’re doing, and I’m going to go back with my head full of ideas, and full of excitement about what’s happening on the ground. Dean Barton, now let’s have our conversation.