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Transcript: Secretary Buttigieg's Remarks at South By Southwest

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Thank you! Thank you, Monica, for the introduction. Thanks to all of you for taking some time with me today. It is really, really good to be back in Austin, really good to be at SXSW, and really good to be in a room with this many other human beings. I hope you feel the same way. I’m flashing back to the last time I was in this place. Last time, I was doing a town hall under very different circumstances, a few years ago, and wearing very different shoes. (laughter) I’m really excited to talk about what we’re doing with the future of U.S. transportation. 

I hope you’ll bear with me too, because I don’t know if you’re having this experience, but I’m still recovering social muscle memory after the last few years, and getting back in the habit of having exchanges like the one we’re about to have. 

And for that reason, I’m going to be pretty brief by way of opening remarks, and try to get to the conversation quickly. There are mics set up—as they explained earlier—and you can ask questions from your phone as well. 

But I do think it’s important to tell you a little bit about what we are setting out to do, just to frame the conversation. 

Let me begin by sharing a little bit about what I’ve seen here in Austin today. I’ve been with the Mayor, my good friend, Steve Adler, who I’ve known for years, and who is leading a community that is committed to making sure that transportation works for everybody. 

We arrived at the airport, where there is a vision for growing it for more capacity, and then made our way to the Metro, the Red Line, where there is a vision for expansion that will bring to many more people the kinds of connections that are needed to have access to opportunity; to have access to education; to have access to other people. That only comes if you have a way to get from point A to point B. 

And through great public transit, we’re creating alternatives for people in communities that were once envisioned as basically having two levels of citizenship: one if you had the advantage of your own car, and then a different one for everyone else. That’s changing here. 

This city was willing to vote to raise the revenue—in other words, pay more taxes—to have a first-rate transit system in Project Connect. And I’m really rooting for that to be a success here in Austin. 

There has never been a better time to work in transportation than right now. There’s never been a better time to be the U.S. Secretary of Transportation than right now. And that’s, among other things, because we have just seen the passage—late last year—of the President’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, committing $1.2 trillion to taking American infrastructure to the next level. (applause) 

That’s not a small thing, obviously. And yet, even a sum of money that big—$1.2 trillion, of which roughly half is for transportation and infrastructure—could get sprinkled out without us feeling enough impact or effect, unless we prioritize. And so, what I want to give you a quick sense of is what we’re going to prioritize as we work with states and with communities to deliver these dollars in a way that’s really going to make $1.2 trillion worth of difference in American lives. 

There are five things that we’re really focused on: safety, economic development, climate, equity, and transformation. 

Let’s start with safety. It’s not the sexiest, but it’s actually the foundation of everything else. This is the reason the Department of Transportation exists. We have a Department of Transportation first and foremost to make sure that everybody can get to where they need to go safely. And safety is supposed to be the kind of thing you take for granted: the better it’s working, the less you even notice it’s a thing. You would be distracted right now if you were worried whether this was a safe place to be in the event of a fire. But a bunch of quiet rules and regulations and codes and little exit signs and evacuation plans and a very well run fire department, and a lot of other things, see to it that you don’t have to worry about that, so we can pay attention to this actual conversation. 

It's the same thing with safety in transportation. You can go about your life paying attention to the things that actually matter in your life if you’re not worried about whether or not you’re going to be safe. 

There have been amazing strides in transportation safety for something like aviation. It’s not unusual to have a year where there are zero deaths in commercial aviation in the United States. 

But on the roadways, we basically take it as a given, as normal, as the sort of cost of doing business, that thousands and thousands of people will die every year. As a matter of fact, about 38,000 people lost their lives on American roadways last year. If you just stop and think about that for a second, everyone here can picture the faces of people in your life who have been lost in a traffic crash. Every one of us—as if we were a society living through a war. 

And I don’t believe it has to be that way, especially because we’ve seen that specific steps that have been taken in a number of places have dramatically reduced the rate of roadway fatalities. 

And so, that’s part of what we’re going to put this money toward: making it safer for you to get where you need to be, and to be behind the wheel in this country. That’s safety. (applause) Sure, we can clap for that! 

Economic strength. There’s a reason this bill was called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The President is very focused on making sure that the U.S. is positioned to win the century, to compete with any other country. Notably, China’s making enormous investments in their transportation infrastructure. Not because the Chinese Communist Party is full of transportation nerds like me, but because strategically, as a country, they understand how important it is for their economic future. 

This is what countries do. This is what the United States has historically done—except we skipped about 40 years in terms of investing at the rate we really should have, to have the kind of infrastructure that will back our economic growth. 

So we’re going to make sure that we drive economic opportunity through great transportation. And that’s true both in terms of the immediate jobs that are going to be created, right: the actual working on installing the electric chargers, and laying of the track, and all of the things that actually go into creating the improvements on roads and bridges and rail and transit and airports and ports that we’re doing through this funding. 

But also the jobs that they support—even if you don’t work in a field that has anything to do with construction or transportation—because you are better connected to opportunity. 

We have an enormous opportunity to prepare America’s economy for the future through first-rate transportation. 

Third, climate. Every transportation decision is a climate decision, whether we recognize it or not. As a matter of fact, in the U.S. economy, the biggest sector in terms of contributions to greenhouse gas emissions is the transportation sector. Which means, in my view, that’s a challenge for us in transportation to try to be the biggest part of the solution. 

Not only that—not only do we have to cut emissions from transportation on our roads, with electric vehicles, in every means of getting around by making it so that you don’t have to drag two tons of metal with you to get where you need to go all the time, even in aviation and shipping—but also, we’ve got to prepare for the climate impacts that are already happening. 

I was just in Colorado a couple weeks ago at I-70. Talk about a perfect storm of climate impacts. Because of droughts and fires, followed by floods, there was a mudslide that took out a key stretch of I-70 down a canyon where there’s not really any alternatives; there’s not really anywhere else to go. And that made it inaccessible, because of that extreme weather event. 

In the Pacific Northwest, we had those heat waves last year. They had to shut down the transit in Oregon because the cables were in danger of literally melting in that heat wave. 

I don’t need to tell Texas about climate events. I mean, a year ago, people were melting snowballs in their toilets in order to be able to flush them. In Texas. Because Texas froze over. 

It should not get that cold in Texas. It should not get that hot in Oregon. And a 500-year flood should not be an annual event. But it’s happening. And that impacts our transportation infrastructure. 

So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to build the road the exact same way you would’ve built it before it got washed out, knowing that it’s going to get washed out again. That’s what I mean when I talk about resilience as part of our climate agenda in transportation. 

Fourth, equity. It is so, so important, with this much money going into our transportation system, that we deploy it in ways that are going to benefit everybody. And that hasn’t always been the case in the past. 

So many communities around the United States can tell stories about how an infrastructure decision that may have been made in the 50s or the 60s chewed up a minority neighborhood, or divided a white neighborhood from a Black neighborhood. The very phrase, “wrong side of the tracks” is in our vocabulary of American English for a reason. 

Infrastructure can and should connect. But sometimes, it divides. 

We have a responsibility to make sure that doesn’t happen this time around, and to make sure that the jobs that are going to be created are available to everybody, including in fields that have been traditionally very male or very white, but could be open to everybody. There are a lot of great pathways into the middle class through the kinds of construction, for example, and transportation jobs that are being created. So that’s part of what I’m getting at when I talk about equity. 

And then, transformation. We’re at South By, so I’m not in a position to lecture on the subject of transformation to an audience that is very focused on the future. I will say that I think the 2020s will probably be one of the most transformative periods we’ve ever seen in transportation. 

You look at what’s happening with electric vehicles, you look at what’s happening with automated vehicles, you look at what’s happening with drones—I mean, even commercial space travel—these things are happening. They’re upon us. And we have an opportunity to prepare the way to make sure that the development of these innovations benefits us in terms of public policy goals—benefits all those other things I was talking about: makes us safer, makes us more equitable and more climate ready and resilient, creates the kinds of jobs that we need for the future. 

And a lot of that depends on the choices that we make with this investment—because we’re not, probably, going to get another one. 

I want to mention one other thing, just to level with everybody, and then we’ll jump into the discussion. 

This is going to take a while. I give a lot of interviews where the first question I get is, “what are we going to see this summer?” And I’ll say, you will see more construction starting to happen as early as this summer, in some places, as a result of this bill. 

But this is not like, for example, the economic stimulus of 2009, where the idea was to get as much money pumped into our economy as possible, to stimulate demand, and deal with high unemployment. This is a very different economic reality right now. And there’s a very different purpose behind this bill. 

This is not about short-term stimulus. This is about getting ready for the long-term. We are building cathedrals. And some of what we do will play out across this decade—immediately creating jobs throughout the decade actually building stuff—but then, supporting our life as a country for literally as long as anyone in here is alive. 

That’s one of the reasons why I’m so, so fired up about the opportunity on our hands. 

So, hopefully that gives you just a sketch of what we’re doing, how we’re approaching it. But again, really eager to jump in to a conversation, so I will suspend the monologue right there.