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Transcript of Secretary Buttigieg Remarks at the 2024 Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting

Friday, January 19, 2024

Good afternoon! Thanks for the chance to join you, and thank you for accommodating my just-in-time delivery. There’s a lot going on this week.  

I want to express how appreciative I am of TRB, and in particular, want to acknowledge Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti: Thank you for your work both in New Jersey as a partner in infrastructure, and for leading the Executive Committee. And to Dr. Lewis, for taking this leadership role on at such an important time. And to all of the members of the TRB Executive Committee—thank you so much for having us. My colleagues, I know, have really enjoyed the conversations that have been underway, and I appreciate the chance to join you for a little bit too.  

I want to note with particular appreciation the discussion that was just taking place on mental health in transportation, because it’s a reminder of the human element in what we do. We’re all transportation people, and so I think we would all confess to a level of fascination with the physical infrastructure, and the vehicle technology, and all of the other concrete elements of transportation systems. I think it’s safe to say, for the kinds of people who are gathering in this room, our fascination with those things is probably beyond most people’s.  

Although there is something universal about it too, which I can attest with fresh conviction and some new data points now, as the parent of two-and-a-half-year-old twins. I think about every time my daughter makes a beeline for the train set in our living room. Or every time I wake up, which usually begins with our son who, at two-and-a-half, is in that peak heavy-equipment phase, who I will hear from his bedroom at about six in the morning beginning the day by just shouting the word “excavator!” for no particular reason, over and over again. 

There’s something innate and magical about transportation. And we in particular, as transportation people, love the gear, the maps, the magic of it all.  

But we’re also here because we understand the “why.” 

Transportation matters because it is an exquisitely human field.  

It’s about being where we need to be—getting where we need to go—in order to live good, prosperous, and fulfilling lives.  

Sometimes that means going halfway around the world for a job opportunity, and sometimes it means getting halfway across town to visit someone we love. But whatever the occasion is, we know that our lives—our entire lives—go better when there are better, safer, more efficient, cleaner, fairer, more affordable ways to get to where we’re going.  

And when I think about how to lay out, not just our transportation policy, but a philosophy of public works that can drive our transportation policy and strategy as a country, it comes down to this: the importance of taking care of the basics of everyday life to make us all better off.  

It’s true for anyone who counts on the ability to get somewhere, which is to say all of us. And it’s true twice over for anyone whose job has to do with construction or transportation, which is millions of us around the country.  

We’re entering the fourth year of this administration. And as you know if you’ve been in government, those years pass like dog years. So even though we’re accelerating our pace of action, now even more than ever before, I think we’re also at this three-year mark in a position to reflect on what has changed in three years, and then take stock of that and let it inform our work. And that’s really what I wanted a few minutes to discuss with you today.  

And a lot has changed. So much so that it’s hard to keep track of sometimes. Think of how disorienting the pace of some of those changes has been, just in this young decade.  

I’ll just take one example: In aviation, in early 2021, the big worry about our airlines was whether they were going to go out of business for lack of demand. By mid-2022, we were just as worried about airlines, but for a completely difference reason, which was how to handle levels of demand so high that airlines couldn’t serve the tickets they were selling.  

And then by late 2023, we had gotten to where we had exceptionally low rates of cancellations, even amid exceptionally high, in fact record high, passenger numbers—only for this year, 2024, to begin with an incident reminding the country the one thing that in aviation that is even more important than on-time performance and customer service, which is, of course, safety. I’ll say more about this in a moment, but I raise it as just one example of the developments and the changes that we have experienced in the first three years of this infrastructure decade for America.  

What I’d like to share with you is a brief overview of where this change has brought us, and the work that's still ahead of us.  

So, I do want to begin with the subject of safety—the DOT’s reason for being—with aviation safety, in general, as the most extraordinary example of what is possible through policy, regulation, enforcement, technology, and expertise.  

It’s strange to reflect that the safest way to travel is in a metal tube, flying miles above the ground, at nearly the speed of sound, propelled by flammable liquids. It’s an extraordinary thing. And it wasn’t always that way. America’s aviation safety record is something that happened through time, including with lessons learned the hard way, and we should never take it for granted. We were reminded of that last week, when a piece of a Boeing 737 Max 9 blew off in the middle of that Alaska Airlines flight. I’m thankful for the flight crews that saw to it that that aircraft landed, and every passenger got off safety. But as I made clear to the leadership of Boeing this week, this should never have happened in the first place. And the path for any plane in that category to return to service will be dictated by safety, and only by safety. 

The design and the manufacturing of aircraft is one part of aviation safety. Another, of course, is our air traffic control system. DOT hired 1,500 new Air Traffic Controllers last year. We’ve got more on the way. And it’s one of many reasons why we are working with Congress to get even more resources in terms of people and technology for our ATC system, as demand grows to historic highs each year.  

It’s also why I would be remiss if I did not urge those House Republicans who persist in proposing to slash funding for FAA that this is not the time—and that they should reconsider. This Administration and this Department have acted decisively to improve air travel with the authorities and tools that we have. Working with Congress, we have a chance to do even more.  

The same is true when it comes to rail safety. We’re coming up on the one-year mark since the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Since then, we have conducted thousands of focused track inspections. We have advanced safety regulations, including a rule on minimum crew size that had been frozen by the last administration. And we have delivered billions of dollars to remove dangerous rail crossings completely, or to improve safety for both passenger and freight rail. But we can’t do it alone. Eleven months after East Palestine, the Railway Safety Act is still waiting. Any member of Congress who professed interest in rail safety 11 months ago has an opportunity today to prove it by supporting the swift passage of that legislation in Congress.  

And then, of course, there’s road safety. The whole country rightly takes note when there is so much as a close call in aviation. Imagine if we applied that same seriousness of purpose to the crisis of road safety in America that claims more than 100 lives—which is to say, as many people as fill an airplane—every single day. It’s unacceptable. The reality is unacceptable. And that’s why we’re not treating it as unavoidable. It’s why we created the National Roadway Safety Strategy, and delivered safety funding that will benefit hundreds of millions of Americans through our Safe Streets for All program. It’s why we’re advancing Automatic Emergency Braking regulations. It’s why, we believe, we are starting to see evidence that we have begun—finally begun—to reverse the rise in roadway deaths. But there is so much work to be done on the pathway to zero.  

The next priority I want to talk about is economic strength and job creation. President Biden’s infrastructure law is already funding some 40,000 projects around the country. Some of them are intersection improvements that can be done in a single construction season. Others are bridges, tunnels, or airport terminal replacements that will take the better part of a decade. But what every project across that spectrum of scale and complexity has in common, is that they are creating jobs right away. And there are more jobs where that came from.  

And what’s really exciting is how many of these jobs are going to people in the communities where this infrastructure is being built—because frankly, that has not always been the case in past waves of US infrastructure investment. I had a chance to sit with some workers that were in building trades jobs at LAX through a program that prioritized workers who came from the same zip code—the same economically challenged zip code—as the airport itself. Some of them had experienced homelessness. And they spoke with enormous pride about how, thanks to that opportunity, they were now buying their own homes, and educating their own children. And from coast to coast, I have seen the impact—the transformative impact—that these jobs can have.  

I’ll do a bit of napkin math that I don’t usually trot this out in public—but I think this is an audience that’s just nerdy enough to be interested in doing a little real-time math. If somebody was working on the Interstate Highway System in 1967, they would make the equivalent of about $60,000 today. Over the course of a five-year project, that would be enough for a down payment on a house, purchased then, that would on average now be worth about $400,000. And if they put 5% of their income into retirement, that would have value of about $350,000 today. Collectively, it would put their household wealth at about six times the median. All from a single job.  

It shows how a single job can change the trajectory of a person’s life. So, if we multiply that by the hundreds or thousands or even tens of thousands of jobs happening in each of the tens of thousands of projects we have underway nationwide, it will change the trajectory of a generation. 

We aren’t just creating generational wealth though. We’re also taking on generational challenges, like confronting climate change and advancing equity.  

Climate change is no longer about recognizing the science. It is about recognizing what is happening around us. It is happening right now, affecting real people, every day. We see this from wildfires in the west, to flooding in Vermont—and it is impacting transportation disproportionately, from I-70 in Colorado being taken out by mudslides, to the Pacific Northwest transit systems that had to shut down because their cables were at risk of melting from extreme heat, that statistically shouldn’t even be possible.  

It’s been jarring, I have to say, here in Washington, having to debate with some members of Congress the difference between the seasons changing and the climate changing. But for most of us, this is not a political question. It is a searing reality. And it need not be a partisan issue either. In fact, in 2022, I joined the Republican governor of Utah—a state that has definitely felt the impact of climate change firsthand—to roll out the PROTECT program, which is making infrastructure across the country more resilient to extreme weather.  

We're taking action across every mode. We’re making it easier and more affordable to use an electric car by building out that national network of EV chargers. Stay tuned for more exciting news on that very soon. We’re helping cities replace aging buses with new, cleaner ones. We’re decarbonizing shipping routes, and advancing sustainable aviation fuel. We’re making transit more affordable and more accessible, and we’re making it safer and easier to walk or to bike.  

Crucially, we’re also ensuring that the benefits of investments like these get to the communities that need them most. We all know that federal investments have not always made it equitably to the places where they’re most needed. But this infrastructure package is so wide-ranging, and we are being so intentional about it, that I believe this era could be remembered, because of the infrastructure law, as a period when the biggest wealth gaps in this country finally began to close. And in fact, we’re starting to see economic evidence of that already.  

We’re doing our part to make sure small and minority-owned businesses have a fair chance to compete for infrastructure contracts—from installing EV chargers to doing accounting work for big engineering firms. We set an ambitious goal, as a department, for 21% of our own contracts to go to small, disadvantaged businesses, and we beat that goal—amounting to billions of dollars in opportunity for talented business and innovative people who might not have been  able to contribute otherwise. And we’ve also invested in reconnecting communities to jobs and opportunity, and improving rural roads and bridges that are sometimes the only way to get into or out of those communities, but also haven’t gotten the investments they deserve.  

The last area I want to talk about concerns technology, research, and innovation. And of course that, in so many ways, is where this community of practice and expertise comes in.  

Innovation is important, is exciting, not just for its own sake, but for its ability to advance all of those other things we’re trying to work on: safety, jobs, climate, equity. And to make meaningful progress in those areas, we have to recognize that we’re not going to be, and shouldn’t be, building infrastructure the way we did, 50, or 100, or 150 years ago.   

New technology has the potential to save lives on our roadways. In a world where cars can communicate with buildings, and lane markers, and bicycles, and each other, it’s hard to even calculate how many crashes might be prevented.  

By pioneering more sustainable fuels for shipping and aviation, we can decarbonize some of the hardest-to-decarbonize sectors of our economy, and reach the President’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, while also strengthening our supply chains. In a few minutes, I’ll be speaking with experts about innovative new materials, like pavement that can last longer, capture carbon, and even heal itself, making our infrastructure more resilient.  

So, no matter what area of transportation research, technology, or policy you work on, I know that you are working to the benefit not just of transportation itself, but of the people who count on transportation every day, which is all of us.  

That’s why I want to end where I began, which is the humanity of all this. Every driver, every pedestrian, every railroad worker, every airline passenger, you name it—their lives, which is to say our lives, literally depend on the quality of our transportation systems. That’s why working on them is such a privilege. And it’s why working on them is so important.  

The possibility that we, now, here in the 2020s, are shaping the most dramatic period of advancement in transportation since the onset of the jet age, means that fewer people will suffer from avoidable crashes. It means that more people will have good and meaningful jobs, and the ability to get to them and back home with enough time to be with the people they love. It means that our kids will live in a more sustainable economy, and breathe cleaner air than we did growing up, and it could even mean they will live in a more equitable society than the one that our generations inherited. All through good transportation work.  

Best of all, we’ll be able to tell them—our kids and grandkids—that in these consequential years, we took every dimension of travel—from safety to sustainability—across every from of travel and transportation—from ocean shipping to aerospace—and left it better than we found it. 

We’ve got a lot to show for three years’ work, but even more that must be done in short order. It is daunting and it is tantalizing at the same time, which I know is the very equation that propels so many of you in this work—that, and the pleasure of living without any doubt that our work matters, and the knowledge that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. 

That’s why I am excited to continue working with you in the young years of this, America’s transposition decade. And I cannot wait to see what we are going to achieve together.  

Thank you very much for the chance to join you. Thank you for your great work.