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Transcript: Secretary Buttigieg gives remarks on infrastructure and the I-81 highway in Syracuse, NY

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Thank you Leader Schumer, and I will always answer to the name of Mayor. Once a mayor, always a mayor. And I want to thank you for your leadership, Senator Gillibrand, for everything you’ve done on this and so many other issues. 

And they're right: they encouraged me before I even had this job to get out here, and I'm so glad we’ve been able to do it. I know Representative Katko couldn’t be here, but his office is represented. Mayor Walsh, to be with you—to be with all the leaders here: state, local, labor, community—really says a lot about what can happen when a city like this is committed to moving forward.  

And as everybody here knows, all the other issues we’ve talked about—jobs, safety, prosperity, racial justice—cannot be separated from transportation. That’s why we’re here. Every decision about transportation is necessarily a decision about justice. It’s a decision about our future.  

And to understand our future, we have to learn from our past. 

It was 65 years ago today that President Eisenhower signed a bill creating the Interstate Highway system.  

And it was an extraordinary achievement. But we know that the planners behind it also made choices that often routed new highways directly through Black and brown neighborhoods, doing lasting damage to those communities. 

One of those highways is right next to us.  

I-81 was built, as the Leader described, right over and through the 15th Ward. It displaced nearly 1,300 residents from what had been a close-knit, middle-class, Black neighborhood. 

Those who remained were cut off, in many ways, from opportunity. And over the next few decades, much like my own hometown of South Bend, Syracuse lost about 30% of its population. 

Now, the city has been rebounding in an extraordinary way—and yet these consequences and this legacy are still with us. 

So, right now, the state department of transportation, the mayor, the county, the community—in partnership with so many others, including the federal government—are reimagining I-81 to better meet Syracuse’s needs and reconnect those communities that were once divided. 

And it's not just Syracuse—although this is a remarkable place to illustrate what’s happening across the country. That’s why the President’s vision for the American Jobs Plan is so important: It’s a once-in-a-century opportunity to create the future of transportation—learning from our past and doing better. 

I want to make sure everybody understands just how historic the bipartisan framework that was agreed to will be.  

It is a generation of good paying, union jobs, the majority of which are available to workers whether they have a college degree or not. That’s incredibly important for blue collar revival. 

It’s the largest investment in roads and bridges since that day, when President Eisenhower signed that bill. 

It’s the largest investment in public transit, federally, ever.  

And there are a whole lot of other things to be very proud of, including passenger rail, which you know is a passion of the President’s as well as my own. 

We need to act now to expand our vision of what infrastructure means. That's why the internet and pipes belong in this bill right alongside roads, bridges, and highways. All of that is necessary for prosperity, and all of that is considered in this bill.   

But even more than that is at stake—because democracy itself is being put to the test. The President believes that this is a test of whether democracy can deliver for our citizens better than the autocratic regimes that have been in a race with us to define what values will dominate the 21st Century. That's really what this is all about. And that’s why we need to act right now. 

I just want to take a moment to talk about why equity is at stake in our transportation decisions. When you hear a racially loaded expression like, “the wrong side of the tracks”—you know that expression, we’ve all heard it—you sometimes forget: that’s a transportation issue.  

Because often, it was literally the tracks or the road that divided one part of the community from another. That served to segregate a city.  

And that's why we're now looking at every program we’ve got through the lens of equity—including the authorizations we already have—even as leaders in the Senate and the House work to do more.  

We're making sure that our grant programming is built with a view toward equity. 

We're making sure that those who actually live in communities where these projects are located get the opportunity to work on them.  

It’s why we’re reviving our Departmental Office of Civil Rights, which had a shocking number of vacancies when we arrived in Washington. It’s going to get the support that it needs, and I know that our friends in the Senate have our backs on making sure that happens. 

So again, to the Syracuse community—which reminds me so much of my own hometown—I so admire and want to salute the spirit that has brought this community back, and is moving this community forward.  

You will always have a friend in the Biden-Harris Administration, rooting for this community to succeed, and ready to celebrate the triumphs that you're going to put forward on transportation infrastructure and in so many areas of your future.  

Thanks for the chance to be here today.