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Transcript of Secretary Buttigieg Remarks on Rural Transportation and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Thanks so much Mayor, first of all. Thank you Tell City for such a warm welcome.  

It feels very, very good to be back in Indiana. And I’ll tell you, as you know and I was explaining this to my staff in Washington, this is about as far as you can be from my hometown and still be in the same state. Might argue we have a lot of things that are a little different from my part of the state to here. But, you have always made me feel at home and what I really admire and appreciate about the spirit of this community is that you’ve been so welcoming to me now visiting you as a member of the President’s cabinet, but you were no less welcoming to me when I was first turning up here about 10 years ago trying to get people to care about what goes on in the State Treasurer’s office as a young business guy from the north of the state with a funny name. You were just as kind to me then. I didn’t win or anything – but you were very, very kind to me. And I’ll never forget it.  

I want to thank Commissioner Smith – congratulations on this leadership role. You’ve been with INDOT for a long time, but you’re taking this job, just as I am, at what I believe is the most interesting and exciting time in our lifetimes to be doing this kind of work, thanks to the kind of funding that’s coming our way. It’s a lot of responsibility for you and for me, but I particularly want to applaud the commitment I just heard to working with local partners. Because so much of this ultimately happens on the ground and I know you and INDOT are focused on that. 

And I want to thank the folks who gave me a tour of the port; Port Authority President Alvin Evans and your board members and colleagues who showed me around. Really appreciate the tour and the welcome. I really appreciate you arranging for the rain to take a pause just right about the time I got there. Thank you for that. 

It’s been great to spend time with the Mayor just to hear about the challenges and the opportunities that are ahead for Tell City – so much of which do remind me of home. 

I understand that it was the Tell City Chair Company and companies like that which were an economic pillar of the community in the past, employing hundreds of residents for decades, and then closed, leading to the fear that the city could empty out. But because of the work ethic of the people of this community, and because of how close it was to a freight rail station, and because of the port, you were able to attract the Waupaca Foundry, which became the largest employer for this area. 

It reminds me a little bit of the Studebaker factory we had in South Bend: this giant building that closed fifty years before I even became mayor. But when I took office we were still trying to find our new footing after that. And for us, too, infrastructure was a big part of the answer. From taking advantage of the high-speed fiber internet that ran along the train tracks and helped us attract new business, to the designs that we did partnering with INDOT among others on getting our main street to be a little more friendly to foot traffic and to business, all of which helped make our downtown more attractive and drive new investment and new energy. 

The reason I bring all of this up is because we know communities often rise or fall based on the quality of their infrastructure. And the economic development that is at stake here goes far beyond the things that are of interest to those of us who spend all of our time and attention on infrastructure anyway. Because infrastructure at the end of the day is the foundation on which we build our futures. 

I’m here to talk about the future we’re building on the foundation of better infrastructure through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that the president signed last November. Through that law and the efforts of this administration, we are now positioned to do more for  infrastructure than at any point in my lifetime. Which is a good thing, because for the better part of my lifetime, that foundation has been allowed to get shaky. And part of why I’m here is, frankly, that has especially been true in more rural areas of our country. Which means a big part of the solution can and must be to make investments in rural infrastructure. 

One stat that I noticed when I was serving is that rural residents make up about a fifth of the U.S. population, but about a third of the U.S. military. Rural communities are used to giving more than they get, even when it comes to protecting and supporting this country. 

So the fact that rural communities have been underrecognized and under-resourced for years is something that we can and must do something about. 

Over 13% of rural roads are in poor condition. There are over 3,000 closed bridges in rural areas, and another 50,000 with weight restrictions due to their condition. And of course when a bridge is closed in rural areas, or has a load limit and you can’t cross it, that means that the length of the average detour is going to be a lot more severe than it is in an area that’s concentrated with a lot of alternatives. It can be three times longer than in an urban area, which means people take longer to get to work, businesses take longer to get their deliveries. And the fatality rate on rural roads is about twice as high as on urban roads.  

This is part of a broader story, a bigger pattern, that helps to explain why many rural communities have to fight so hard to hold onto their young people. I’m encouraged to see some young people in the audience today, who I hope will be able to build a future in Perry County, in the communities in and around Tell City.  

My own hometown wouldn’t quite count as rural, that would probably be a bit of stretch. Although, I will say if I walked my dogs the long way, we would go through a corn field before we got home. But what I will say is that I know what it’s feels like to grow up in a place where you get the message, whether anybody says it out loud or not, that succeeding and making something of yourself means getting out. And we’ve got to do something to make sure that people get a different message. If a young person looks around their community and they see degraded infrastructure, they see that the bridges are out, they see that the roads aren’t in good shape, they see that the signs are faded, that sends a message about investment in the community that makes them question whether they should invest their future in where they came from. 

But after seeing too many generations “get out” of rural communities, we are getting in, in a very big way. 

And we’re doing it together. Another thing I’m very proud of in this bill is in a Washington climate when most people didn’t think you could get a bipartisan anything done, we were able to get this Bipartisan Infrastructure Law done with strong numbers of a lot of Republicans crossing over to join their Democratic colleagues and join the President – coming together to deliver the most significant investment in rural infrastructure since the Interstate Highway System. And we’re so proud of being able to do that together. 

I would add that we’ve seen probably the highest compliment I can think of for a piece of legislation, which is that a few of the people that voted against it have started showing up to take credit for the outcome. And you know what, that’s very flattering! And it’s evidence that this landmark legislation really was the right thing to do, and a long time coming.  

But of course getting the law passed was just the beginning. Now we have to use these resources to make sure everyone benefits. We’ve got to do it with geographic equity, we’ve got to do it with widespread participation. That’s what I’m really here to discuss. This is the start of an ongoing partnership where together we’re finding the best ways to use these federal resources – to support local priorities that make life better and create economic opportunity for all Americans.  

And when we do that, we strengthen the whole country.

So, let’s talk about projects that make it easier and more affordable for people to get to work and for goods to get market.   

Better roads and bridges mean less wear and tear on your vehicle, it means more peace of mind. It also means lower shipping costs at a moment when we’re fighting inflation with everything we’ve got. It means more customers for businesses, faster movement of goods and, I would add, agricultural exports are just as much a part of that as PlayStations coming in on a boat from China. I would argue perhaps more important for a lot of communities in the heartland. And I know our friends and colleagues as USDA, we’re partnering very actively with Secretary Vilsack, on ways to speed agricultural exports. We make the best stuff in the world and we should be selling it to the whole world, and we should make it easy. And I know you’re actively involved in that.  

So in December, we allocated the biggest Federal Highway funding to states in decades, $52.5 billion, to improve roads and bridges.  

It’s often said that there are no Republican bridges or Democratic roads and that’s exactly right. We are going to fund good projects that make life better and make our country stronger, in every community where there is need and every community where there’s opportunity.   

In March, we opened applications for Rural Surface Transportation Grants, a new program -- $300 million -- to fund road projects that increase access to markets or make travel safer. Towns can also use those funds for innovative transportation systems, like on-demand transit, bringing a shared ride to you, rather than relying on fixed route bus systems that make sense in more dense and populated areas. We’ve seen great results connecting people to jobs, doctor’s appointments, and community activities and resources, using that on-demand model in places from Vermont to Florida, Georgia, and more.    

We have new programs to fund rural ferries; better train service; better airport service; safer roads, and safer railroad crossings... and the safest railroad crossing is when you can eliminate it completely, and I know we’re working on some opportunities to do that. And of course, we’re including the perspective of rural stakeholders in everything we do. 

And we’ve already started to put our money where our mouth is. Even before this bill passed, we had the INFRA program, about a billion dollars in funding to go across the country. And the rule was you have got to spend at least 25 percent of that in rural areas. I’m proud to report we nearly doubled that – with 44 percent of that going to rural projects. And that’s because we know how important it is and how much of a difference that funding can make in smaller communities.  

And we’ve got significant funding going into existing programs, but we’re going to run them with a lot more resources, which is great because they’ve never had enough funding to meet the demand. The last time we had a round on a discretionary grant program, we had about $10 billion worth of applications for $1 billion worth of funding. And I can tell you there were a lot more than $1 billion that were worth funding. 

We’ve been doing rail-to-trail programs. I strongly agree that that’s beneficial both from a commuter standpoint and from a recreational standpoint. We’re doing one in the Arkansas Delta right now, where we’re going to help a rural area take an old, unused rail line, stimulate business and tourism, and we think that is the kind of thing a lot of the communities are going to choose to do with the federal funding that we’re making available.  

But of course, one of my favorite examples, the one I’m here to talk about today, is what we just had a chance to look at. This port right here in this community has needed investment for a long time. The pier there is not able structurally to carry the kinds of loads it takes to get all those raw materials to Waupaca. And when the waters run too high or too low, it’s pretty often you got one or the other, sometimes loading is restricted or even impossible. Barges are forced to wait or bypass until the water returns to a more normal level.  

So the port came to our Department for help and now help is on the way because we have been able to award $1.6 million to improve the Tell City River Port. 

And what that means is there can be this new pier so goods can be moved more often directly truck to barge or barge to truck, regardless of the water level, and the port estimates this could increase productivity by up to 60%. 

Those benefits are going to ripple out across the community, certainly for the Waupaca Foundry which employs about 1,000 people, receiving the pig iron that comes in from the port and then turning it into the brake rotors, and the flywheel housings and the crankshafts and all those other vehicle components that are going into an industry that is racing to keep up with demand right now. 

And they’re not just turning that pig iron into automotive parts; they’re turning it into prosperity. They’re turning it into middle class incomes, they’re turning it into sponsorships for the little league team, and dues for the VFW I just paid a visit to. They’re turning it into a living. And that’s what this is all about. That’s how infrastructure can create and sustain and protect a whole range of jobs.  

And it’s one piece of this Administration and this President’s broader work to strengthen our domestic supply chains, so we’re less dependent on and less vulnerable to what’s going on with foreign supply chains. We can and should make more of it in America, and that’s what a big part of this is. 

I know the conversation on the news is often in trillions and billions. But one community at a time, we see how much one or two million dollars can do. And that’s especially true if we multiply it out by the thousands of communities in America that are ready to put these dollars to good use.  

In fact, Tell City has a history of building a very important piece infrastructure for right about a million dollars: I’m told that’s what it cost to build the floodwall that has protected this city for so long.    

So that brings me to the second area that it’s important for us to help with, which is resilience. Making our transportation more resilient against rising water and extreme weather, and reducing the pollution that comes out of our transportation. 

If you’re in agriculture, you’re managing uncertainty for a living, you don’t need any more uncertainty than we already have when it comes to weather, but there’s more where that came from. If you’re dependent on one route, and it’s a road that might get washed out, or a bridge that might get closed down, you see the exposure to these increased incidences of extreme weather. And now we have the first USDOT-administered program dedicated to making roads and bridges more resilient.  

We also have funding to reduce carbon emissions and vehicle pollution that our families breathe. I’m thinking about projects like the one they’re working on to build that road directly from the port to up to 66, right, that’s going to mean that trucks can move more quickly and it’s going to mean they no longer need to move on those local roads through neighborhoods and communities where kids are playing. It’s going to make everybody better off. 

So, to help protect our citizens against the climate crisis, and to make sure that everyone can get the cost savings that are associated with things like electric vehicles, we’ve seen states with large rural populations, including Utah, Tennessee, and Alabama, at work building out the charging stations that are needed. And I talked with county commissioners in rural areas about just how much a difference it will make if residents can get one of these electric pickups we’ve seen in the commercials, and know that they’re going to be able to charge them. And if we get that right, something that’s especially important to a place like Indiana, we’re building up a U.S.-based automotive industry for the next generation of vehicles just as we did for the last. 

The last thing I want to highlight is not transportation, but more deeply about how infrastructure can improve life and economic strength in America. And that’s that there’s a lot more to infrastructure than there used to be. Now I’m by comparison the old-fashioned Secretary, working on the trains, planes, and automobiles. But right now it is just as important to have a connection to the internet as it is to the interstate highway system, you got to have both, and we’re working on that too.  

The infrastructure law is going to make the price of internet more affordable and it’s going to make sure that high-speed internet is available to every American. I don’t need to explain to anybody here how important that is – for businesses, for families, for schools. 

And we’re going to make sure that drinking water is clean in every part of this country. One of those most basic things you shouldn’t even have to think about – of course in municipal government we think about it so that everybody else doesn’t have to - but it’s time for the federal government to make it a little easier for those county and local officials working on that to do their job.      

These are the kinds of investments that can help make sure a new generation of Americans can live – and can thrive – in the communities where they were raised.  

There’s less pressure to “get out” of your hometown when you look around and there’s good-paying construction jobs everywhere; when you can count on high-speed internet to work remotely for any employer you like, maybe use it to launch your own big company; when there is better passenger service, better airports around, access to a rail network to keep you connected, maybe your employer connected across the region; a walkable downtown with the kind of quality of place that makes you want to spend your time there.   

These are the kinds of investments America ought to have been making all along, but we’re doing it now. And I’m so proud of how communities that have already been working with generations-old infrastructure have kept the fires lit, have kept these communities going. You deserve more support, and help is on the way.  

I would add that these investments, and I’ll close with this, can be unifying in a very, very divided time, just like the infrastructure law itself united so many people across party lines.  

It’s part of a great tradition in this country of preparing for the future. When we look back at the infrastructure investments that transformed our country – projects like the Interstate Highway System, the New Deal, all the way back to the Transcontinental Railroad – two things are clear.    

First, those investments were not just the foundations of job growth and economic success, they actually helped unite America by literally connecting it up. President Eisenhower said, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.” He said, “Without them, we would be a mere alliance of many separate parts.”  Thanks to the right kinds of connections we’re not just an alliance, we’re a people, we’re a country, we’re a nation, united. 

The second pattern is this: each of those big infrastructure investments was fiercely debated at the time, and nobody got it exactly the way that they wanted, but they ultimately made it and they made it with bipartisan support. And the rest was history... the rest is our American history of economic strength and connectedness and innovation. 

I believe that the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law puts us in a tradition with the best of those who came before us, and sets the right course for the people we’re serving today and those who will come after us.   

I actually think that the best way that we can honor the tradition of those who came before, is to emulate the fact that our forebearers were always keeping their eyes focused on the future, and that’s what we have a chance to do right now and that’s what I see from folks here in Tell City. So I couldn’t be prouder of what I’ve seen here on the ground here, couldn’t be prouder that our Department is supporting this community, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing the results. 

Thank you again for having us here, really appreciate it.