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When Joe Biden nominated the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to head the US Department of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg’s CV and the task ahead of him seemed almost comically mismatched. The department has a budget of tens of billions of dollars and a workforce of 55,000, the majority of whom are in the Federal Aviation Administration. Meanwhile, the executive of South Bend, the country’s 304th largest city, oversees a transport budget of about $10m (€8.5m), with a fleet of 47 buses and fewer than 100 full-time employees. South Bend International Airport, which has never had international passenger services, isn’t under the mayor’s control.

Yet Buttigieg has been a star of Biden’s cabinet as the most visible booster of its early legislative successes. This spring, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law. According to Buttigieg, its injection of $30.5bn (€26bn) into regional transport systems “saved transit” that had been hit hard by the pandemic-era collapse of passenger numbers. In a summer when Biden’s administration faced worldwide condemnation for the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, infrastructure was a bright spot. Buttigieg played a central role in rallying rare bipartisan support for a $1.2trn (€1trn) public-works bill, the final passage of which will mark one of the most significant acts of investment in the US built environment in years.

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Buttigieg might have arrived on the national scene as a jejune agent of lofty rhetoric about generational change but he is now an unlikely steward of the Democrats’ nuts-and-bolts agenda. For him, ensuring that the investment is wisely spent is about much more than just fixing dilapidated bridges and roads, or bringing the country’s airports and railways up to international standards.

“It’s important for people to see these policies working for them,” Buttigieg tells monocle as we meet on the White House campus where he’s working from a suite in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Buttigieg has taken to cycling around the capital but his white shirtsleeves are pristine even after a humid morning’s commute. “And I’m saying that not just in terms of crass expectations about political credit but because it actually contributes to social and political trust,” he adds.

“Since the Reagan era, the public sector has been starved of resources,” says the 39-year-old. “People saw policy failure and degraded assets, undermining their trust in government. This, in turn, undermined their willingness to fund government, which then undermined the ability of government to deliver.” The solution? “Show people that good government, whether big or small, can deliver for them.”

On investing in infrastructure:

“It’s one of the most bipartisan areas we have in domestic policy. There’s mutual appetite to work on it in a bitterly divided Washington”

Previously little known outside his corner of northern Indiana, Buttigieg emerged as the surprise star of the 2020 Democratic primary season by pulling off the impressive feat of winning the most delegates in the Iowa caucuses and finishing second in the New Hampshire primary. But his candidacy stalled as the moderate white voters at the core of his coalition rallied around the more familiar Biden. When Buttigieg dropped out of the race in early March, he did not have a job awaiting him; his second term as mayor had ended on New Year’s Day. So he endorsed the frontrunner, becoming the Biden-Harris ticket’s most effective broadcast spokesman and one of its top fundraisers. (He also wrote a book and started a podcast, of course.)

Buttigieg, who during his mayoralty served a six-month deployment in Afghanistan as a Kabul-based naval-intelligence officer, had initially aspired to be Biden’s ambassador to the UN. It was a post that would have rewarded the polyglot Buttigieg’s gift for oratory and building relationships, and not demand much in the way of administrative nous. Instead, he was handed responsibility for a large and complex bureaucracy, leapfrogging two politicians with experience of running much bigger cities – Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel – who were both said to be interested in becoming transportation secretary in the Biden administration.

Buttigieg, meanwhile, became the youngest of Biden’s cabinet secretaries and the US’s first openly gay one. His decision not to return to Indiana politics has left everyone in the capital with the unchallenged impression that he will mount another run for the presidency at the first opening. He is probably the only administration official who would have felt it necessary to include a celebrity-style request for privacy in an August announcement that he and his husband, Chasten, were adopting a child.

On investing in infrastructure:

“It’s one of the most bipartisan areas we have in domestic policy. There’s mutual appetite to work on it in a bitterly divided Washington”

On formally joining Biden’s administration, Buttigieg’s first congratulatory call, by custom, was from the Canadian transport minister. But he has spoken to other international colleagues and it’s not always clear who his peers are. In some countries, the analogous ministry covers communications or water systems; in India, for instance, the secretary’s responsibilities are spread across four different ministries. The congratulatory calls were instructive to the new secretary about just how unwieldy the component parts of his portfolio would be. Unexpected developments forced two of the transportation department’s smaller responsibilities to the top of the news: pipeline safety, when the country’s largest fuel pipeline was shut down by hackers; and commercial space travel, when a few billionaires decided that their new hobby was suborbital flight. 

But it was Biden’s decision to prioritise a series of big spending bills that put Buttigieg at the centre of the political action. “It’s no accident that the issue that first led us to see the president walking out of the West Wing and announcing a deal, flanked by Democratic and Republican senators, was infrastructure,” says Buttigieg. “It is one of the most bipartisan areas we have left in domestic policy – and you can feel that. It has been encouraging to see that there is, in fact, mutual appetite to work on these things in a bitterly divided Washington. And my hope is that it could be a source of momentum for other issues too.”

On taking the long view:

“We’re trying to prepare a long-term vision for the future. That’s why we’re talking about a generational investment”

The last Democratic administration also began with a massive new spending push. In 2009, Barack Obama promised that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (arra) would not only pull the country back from recession but transform its energy, healthcare and transport sectors. Biden, as vice-president, was tasked with managing arra’s implementation. But its aims were in conflict: the so-called “shovel-ready” projects that could quickly create jobs were typically to repair rather than reimagine existing infrastructure. So highways were repaved but the promised lattice of new high-speed rail corridors never materialised.

This time, Biden split his Build Back Better programme into separate pieces. The American Rescue Plan, passed in March, was designed to deliver instant stimulus. The infrastructure bill lumped together the spending that was most popular with Republicans, spread out over many years. “What we’re trying to do now is prepare a long-term vision for the future,” says Buttigieg. “That’s why we talk about it as a generational investment, not in terms of what can go into the ground by 2022 [in time for the mid-term elections].”

On driverless cars:

“It’s not just that they’re nifty. It’s that a blind or disabled person can travel somewhere they couldn’t because the car is driving”

When the infrastructure bill becomes law, it will channel massive sums into Buttigieg’s departmental budget, including $110bn (€93bn) for roads and bridges, a similar amount for rail and mass transit, and $25bn (€21bn) for airports. Biden has promised that this will not only fund a construction spree but serve as a vehicle to advance broader policy interests: strengthening the country’s hand in geopolitical competition with China; ensuring racial equity in US cities; fighting climate change; and preparing the country for the effects of new weather patterns.

First, though, there will be the matter of letting the American people know who deserves the credit. In 2009, Obama invested in an effort to brand the stimulus package, slapping a freshly designed “Recovery” logo on every transport project so that travellers would associate it with the government. Buttigieg suggests his focus is less about roadside signage than new opportunities to spread the word via digital media. “It doesn’t have to be about literally stamping the president’s signature on everything that happens,” he says. “But we can have conversations with communities about how the bridge that they’re about to drive over is here because of their local leadership and because of decisions made in Washington.”

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On the railway network:

“There’s no reason that America should settle for the fact that Japan, Italy, Spain or Morocco can boast better rail access”

As Buttigieg articulates that effort to build trust through infrastructure, it starts to sound a lot like another campaign. “Connecting the dots is partly a matter of presence,” he says. “That’s why it’s important for the president to go places and for the vice-president to go places – and for me to go places when the time is right.” 


What’s on Pete’s plate?

Five pressing tasks for the secretary of transportation.

1.
Making the roads more durable
Buttigieg was often frustrated as mayor at the amount of time and money he had to devote to filling potholes. That experience led him to consider the short-sightedness of the modern approach to construction. “The problem is that nobody has thought of an asphalt that lasts more than 12 years in our climate,” he says. “Just taking this from 12 to 17 years would be epic in terms of the billions of dollars saved and the environmental benefit.”

2.
Funding future momentum
As mayor, Buttigieg appointed South Bend’s first chief innovation officer, an unusual post in a small city, and wants his new department to drive breakthroughs that the private sector might ignore. Buttigieg laughs off the suggestion that he will fund jetpack research and instead hopes for advances in drones and automated-vehicles. “It’s not just that it’s nifty,” he says. “It’s that a blind or physically disabled person can travel somewhere that they couldn’t before because the car is driving.”

3.
Razing racist roads
After bipartisan negotiations, funding for the Reconnecting Communities initiative to remove mid-century highways that cleaved cities along racial lines was cut to just $1bn (€850m). “We have a responsibility to apply resources to this because it was federal dollars that created the problem,” says Buttigieg. He’ll build support for the programme by highlighting model projects, such as in Syracuse, New York, that not only right historical wrongs but boost quality of life for residents.

4.
Winning over Republicans
The opposition has dismissed Biden’s clean-energy proposals as green dreams that will drive up prices. Buttigieg sees part of his job as convincing those on the American right that they will gain too. One example is electric vehicles, which he thinks should appeal to rural residents if the government can help to ensure that charging stations are widely available. “These residents will save more money,” he says. “But only if it works.”

5.
Pleasing Amtrak’s leading passenger
National passenger-rail service Amtrak has received the biggest boost to its budget since its 1971 founding. “There’s no reason that America should settle for the fact that Japan, Italy, Spain, Morocco or Turkey can boast better passenger-rail access,” says Buttigieg. Any improvements to speed or reliability are likely to be noticed by his boss; Joe Biden used Amtrak for his daily commute to Washington from Delaware for 36 years.

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