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Transcript of Secretary Buttigieg Remarks at U.S. Conference of Mayors

Friday, January 19, 2024

Thank you, Mayor [Schieve], for the warm welcome. Thanks to all of you for welcoming me back. It does feel good to be among America’s mayors, especially at a time like this.  

For those of you who are from around here or the Southwest, I appreciate you braving the elements to be here. If you’re from the Midwest, I appreciate you suppressing your Midwestern instincts to tell everybody in Washington, DC how this isn’t “real snow.” It’s all relative, it turns out. But I really do feel at home, more than anywhere else, when I am among America’s mayors. Occasionally on the street someone will say, “Hey Mayor Pete!” And then they will stop and correct themselves like maybe they said something wrong. I always say that I wear that as a compliment.   

I was actually thinking back to when I first got elected—not even when I got elected, but when I first got the nomination from my party—for mayor in my city. A couple days later I got an email from a 10-year-old boy saying, “Congratulations, and now that you’re mayor, I need to let you know there’s this intersection close to where I live, and sometimes I wait there to get a ride. It’s very dangerous with the car speed by there, and it needs a stop sign.”  

And I wrote him back, unsure how he got my email address, and said, “Thanks so much for getting in touch. I’m not actually the mayor yet, I still have to win the general election, but I look forward to doing everything I can to make our streets safer.” And sure enough, I won the election. 

The very next day I get an email, from this ten-year-old—I think he’s 11 now—kid. “Congratulations on getting elected. Now I’d like to get back to the matter of the stop sign.”  

And once I took office and understood how our department of public works worked, I asked our city engineer, “Do we have a process for this?” And of course, there is. They did some math, and it turned out it was justified. And the next thing I knew, one of the first days in office we found the kid, and the two of us together installed a stop sign at the corner of Donmoyer Avenue in South Bend Indiana.  

You know as mayors what it’s like to have that incredibly immediate impact—the importance of your work readily intelligible to a 10-year-old child—even as you deal with some of the most confounding issues in public policy, in American politics, and in public administration today.  

I always try to remember the spirit of those early days navigating what our city government could do as I work now in Washington with my administration colleagues under President Biden’s leadership to try to make your job a little bit easier—especially at a time like this. The more I see division at the national and global levels, the more convinced I am that salvation comes from the local. And I believe, in many ways, that most meaningful measure of our success as an administration will be how communities are doing at a local level. Or to put it another way, whether we are making your jobs easier as American mayors. And I hope that you will agree that we are.  

You face so many challenges that have become more fierce and more ferocious than when I was sitting at this table with a mayor’s lanyard in this room 6 or 7 years ago. But it also would have been nice back then if the president of the United States launched a $1.2 trillion infrastructure investment coming to my city and every other in the United States.  

We’re here in the literally most concrete terms to make sure you succeed and to try to shape the culture of this place—Washington, DC—to better reflect what is great about America’s communities.  

Back when I was running for President—which is an effort I first made public from this very stage five years ago this week—I often said that we would be well-served if Washington worked a little more like America’s best-run cities rather than the other way around. I believe that even more strongly now.  

So, what I wanted to do with our time together is share a few examples of how we have followed the lead of America’s mayors—and America’s great communities—especially when it comes to transportation, and what that could mean for what you’re trying to do. 

I’ll start with bipartisanship. One of the things I love, and miss, about the city level—which is especially important to highlight during the chaos of an election year like this—is that partisan considerations and loyalties don’t dominate everything else that’s going on. 

When I was a mayor, I was just as likely to forge meaningful, cooperative relationships with Republicans as with Democrats without pretending to be any more politically conservative than I was, and I was just as likely to be challenged by Democrats as by Republicans. Through this body, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I came to know, and work with, and trust fellow mayors without considering—or in some cases without even knowing—their party affiliations. In fact, I am conscious of addressing one of the only rooms left in America where hundreds of senior elected officials from both parties from around the country gather with shared priorities and shared purpose—and actually like each other. That’s a powerful thing.  

I’d be lying if I said we have gotten anywhere close to that culture, on a routine basis, here in Washington. But I have been struck by how much of the work we’re doing today is not just bipartisan but nonpartisan in its character. Take the very fact of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which we passed with your help and support. The number of Republicans who were willing to cross party lines and work with Democrats and President Biden to get it done, even though the idea of a bipartisan-anything-law was greeted with mockery when President Biden first took office. The obituary of that legislation, that we now can’t imagine not having, that obituary was written dozens of times by people saying the president was on a fool’s errand trying to get bipartisan cooperation—only for it to happen in ways that are now delivering results in every part of the country, red, blue, and purple.  

Sometimes it means eliminating dangerous railroad crossings in rural counties that probably haven’t voted with my party in decades. We were in Millen, Georgia, recently where trains that can be more than two miles long pass every day and cut off an entire half of the town from the other half. I was out there in December to celebrate a grant to fix that crossing, making it safer and easier to get around town.  

And we’re doing that kind of work at the same time as we’re funding transit improvements in East and West Coast cities, like in New York, where last fall, I signed the final funding agreement to extend the 2nd Avenue Subway up to 125th Street in East Harlem, that they have been waiting for literally 50 years to get done. Every state, every region of this country—red, blue, and purple—has seen historic federal investments announced in in roads and bridges, ports and airports, trains and transit—often, the largest community investments that they’ve seen in a lifetime.  

I also need to mention, by the way, that we got a reprieve today in the form of a Continuing Resolution, but we are really going to need some sense of bipartisan problem solving to prevail in order to get the budget we need to keep this work up.  

Here too, I wish the spirit of America’s mayors would prevail. You don’t have the option, if you have a disagreement with your council, about the government shutting down. You deliver water. And you need water to live, so you can’t shut down. The federal government ought to have the same mentality as well.  

A second thing I appreciate, and sometimes miss, about local government is the relentless and unmistakable focus on reality, on facts, on data that cannot be ignored. Local leadership is just more rooted in reality—largely because you’re held accountable for it, everywhere from local media to grocery stores. Don’t get me wrong. I know rumor and misinformation can happen at any level. But in my experience, the truth is never that far away. When you’re a mayor, if there’s a hole in the road, and you manage to fill it in, and someone calls you on it, you can’t just say, “That’s fake news,” because people know that that hole is there.  

We have got to similarly ground our work at the national level. And that’s what we seek to do at USDOT—looking for the evidence to tell us whether we’re leaving each form of transportation better than we found it. We follow the facts. And we’re following the facts to see where the results are happening.  

On supply chains, for example, Pacific shipping rates have fallen by more than half from their extreme peak during the pandemic. Following the events in the Red Sea, we were in close touch with carriers and DOD to monitor supply chain disruptions. And thanks to the Ocean Shipping Reform Act, American companies have more leverage against international shipping cartels, something that adds up to lower shipping costs, which in turn, we know, contributes to lower inflation for the American people.  

We also know that because of strong investment in transportation and infrastructure and the construction and manufacturing that goes with it, we have an extraordinary, in fact by many measures unprecedented period of economic growth taking place right now. We’re also holding ourselves accountable to make sure that continues to reach every American.  

In air travel, just a few years after observers were asking if we were seeing the death of commercial aviation as we knew it during the pandemic, we’ve now seen some of the busiest travel seasons on record. And we ended 2023 with the lowest cancellation rate in the past ten years—which translates to millions more people getting to where they need to be. We did that with a lot of work within FAA and a lot of pressure on airlines, which responded to that pressure by improving their operations.  

When it comes to roadway safety, we’re very closely following the inescapable and troubling numbers that we see around the country. We are living through a crisis of roadway safety, something I have been partnering with America’s mayors to confront. In fact, we just had a great conversation with some of our Safe Streets for All grantees who, around the country are taking steps, deploying federal dollars from the USDOT but also your own political capital, in order to help guide the people who trust you with their lives, as your constituents, toward safer roadways. 

I know that is not always an easy conversation to have, but we are here to support with everything from data and technical information, to over $1.7 billion that has now reached over 1,000 communities.  

The reason this matters is because of the lifesaving potential of addressing this crisis. We’re finally seeing these numbers just start to come down—finally seeing early indications that we’re reversing the rise in roadway deaths. But at 40,000 a year, a level commensurate with gun violence, the implication is that if we have 1% reduction we’re saving 400 lives right there, the equivalent of two or three fully loaded 737 aircrafts. This is the power of the decisions of the being made at the local level and the funding that is reaching you from the federal level.  

Another thing I think that every mayor understands is the importance of connection—symbolically and literally—the importance of unifying and connecting—whether in the physical, social, or even political sense. Mayors live and breathe that work, and often, your specific visions for development—maximizing the use of a riverfront, or enhancing a parks trail, or reimagining a streetscape—embody a key insight that we at the federal level would do well to think about, which is that, part of how you keep a community connected in a social sense is by helping to connect it in the literal, physical sense. Or to put it another way, mayors understand that physical mobility is inescapably connected to social mobility. We’re working to support you in this too.  

A couple years ago, I was in a Southside Chicago neighborhood called Roseland, discussing an effort to extend the Red Line further south so people in that community could access opportunities downtown. I couldn’t help but do some mental math because there is a community called Roseland, Indiana near South Bend where I grew up. It’s about 90 miles away, but if you were in Roseland, Indiana and you have a car, you can get to downtown Chicago more quickly than if you were in the Roseland neighborhood in Chicago and don’t have a car. We’re changing that. We’re changing that to make sure that kind of mobility is not a barrier to people getting the kind of good paying jobs that are going to help them build up their families.   

And we were in Buffalo last year, where half a century ago, federal funding was part of the problem, because the Kensington expressway cut off what had been a thriving neighborhood from the rest of the city—a story I know you have seen played out in just about every community in the U.S. We’re working to change that. I met an extraordinary woman named Stephanie Barber Geter, whose organization, called the Restore Our Community Coalition, fought to restore that neighborhood for the better part of her life. Before she sadly passed away a few days ago, she saw the commitment of federal and state funding that she had been seeking her entire life to deck over that highway and create connections where there had been divisions—along with it, that thing that very few mayors are able to access—new land to use for community benefit, with help from this administration.  

Transportation infrastructure is one of those realms of public policy that every person in this country interacts with every single day, and as mayors, you understand how much depends on delivering the basics. Those unsexy things that mayors spend a lot of time thinking about and working on, and not just in transportation but in water and wastewater, trash and snow removal, police and fire departments. The very foundation of the human hierarchy of needs starts with safety.  

Safety by the way is why our department exists. It’s why we are making sure that we are elevating roadway safety, as I described a little bit earlier. And on that, I want to lift up the partnership that we have with mayors who now represent over 70% of our nation’s population participating in our Safe Streets for All program. We have a new round opening up in February for planning funds, so please talk to your planning departments about that.  

When I was here last year, I highlighted some of the cities that had already seen a year or more without traffic deaths: Hoboken, New Jersey; Evanston, Illinois; Edina, Minnesota. And now, there are many more cities that are using Safe Streets for All funds to pursue their Vision Zero plans, including: Minneapolis; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Spokane; Mount Rainier; and Salinas, California; among others. Hundreds and hundreds of communities benefitting from this, and if you’re not already part of that, I hope you will consider it.  

And while we’re at it, I want you to know that we’re working to make sure our safety mission benefits people in every mode of transportation.  

I have to remark that as we near the one-year anniversary of the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine, while I am proud of the work the DOT team has done to use the full range of our authority to improve rail safety nationwide—including holding railroads accountable, supporting first responders, protecting rail workers—there is a bipartisan Rail Safety Act sitting in Congress, waiting it’s turn, right now.  Let’s not allow America to get to that one-year mark and not have that safety act become law, and I think your voices need to be heard in this because mayors and your emergency services departments shouldn’t be in the dark about what’s coming through your communities. We’re doing our part with the authority we have. Congress ought to be helping, and we’re calling on Congress not to get sucked into any of the other things that seem to be commanding attention over there, but don’t add value, while this continues to sit waiting it’s turn.  

I know traffic lights and bike lanes and potholes and some other things that mayors work on aren’t always considered sound sexy, but they are profoundly important—and not just because potholes are the bane of every mayor’s existence, at least that’s my recollection—but those basics are the foundation for everything else.  And that’s where I think we need to keep a level of fidelity to a philosophy of public works that recognizes the intimate relationship between the most important and difficult things people have going on in their lives—and I would even say the meaning of life—and the most basic workaday things the municipal government takes care of. You make sure things get done so that people don’t have to worry about it. 

If the meaning of life for you is to be a good parent to your kids, you can’t fully be present for that if you can’t get home in time because the road isn’t in good shape. If the meaning of life for you has to do with your faith, you’re not in a position to concentrate on that if you are distracted by uncertainty about whether drinking water is poisoning your children. If the meaning of life for you has something to do with entrepreneurship, you won’t be able to fully live a life of your choosing if the public works that you count on aren’t available and you have to worry about working around them.  

Something even bigger is at stake right now which is the fate of our democracy. President Biden often says that the ability of democratic nations to deliver is being put to the test right now. When the basic economic, political, and social conditions of our civilization deteriorate, including our infrastructure, public trust deteriorates with it in a vicious cycle that costs the legitimacy of democracy itself. 

On the other hand, when we deliver on those basics, including infrastructure, people feel the benefits of democracy through better quality of life. It’s why filling in holes in the road, or filling holes in the national EV charging network, or filling holes in supply chains are all investments, not just in US transportation, but in the durability of our democracy.  

As a fellow former mayor of mine, Andy Berk, once put it, good city government tears down the obstacles that stand between people and a life of their choosing. By making sure people have the basics taken care of you are helping to preserve their very freedom.  

There is always a great deal at stake for America’s mayors and America’s cities—just as there always is here in Washington. But that’s exceptionally true in our time as our nation struggles to deliver on its promise, and as Americans sometimes question whether democracy can deliver for them. So much depends on your work, and ours.  

But we are now here to support that work resources that have not existed in my lifetime, to help cities get their job done. Yes, “We are with the federal government and here to help.” But this time we’re backing it up, with the funding, as well as the technical support, as well as anything else you need.  

So I just want you to know how energized I am by all of the excellent and extraordinary work of America’s mayors, and how confident I am that, as challenging, troubling and even dark as the last five or ten years have been in many ways, we are going to remember the 2020s—America’s infrastructure decade, thanks to president Biden’s leadership, and America’s democracy decade, if we get right the assignment before us at every level from the federal to the local—we will look back with great pride on this moment and what we were able to do together. And I am here with you, every step of the way. Thank you for your great work, and thank you for the chance to join you.