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Can Pete Buttigieg Really Change Transportation Policy?

The U.S. Department of Transportation isn’t considered one of the federal government’s stronger agencies. But change and innovation has happened in recent years and could accelerate under new leadership and with more money.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaking into a microphone in front of a crowd.
U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
In staid Washington, D.C., administration officials like to arrive at their destinations fresh, pressed and sweatless. Chauffeured cars are the normal means of transportation, allowing an appointee climate-controlled space to steel themselves for whatever ordeal lies ahead.

That’s why the secretary of transportation’s announcement that he would be biking into the office garnered a few headlines and appreciative salutes from cyclists. A presidential appointee working up a sweat is a man bites dog story, and the kind of gesture that Washington watchers had come to expect from an official who was doing something new with one of the least innovative bureaucracies in the capital.

“I wanted to set the right tone and set the right example while we were promoting the funding of walking and biking paths,” remembers Ray LaHood, transportation secretary from 2009 to 2013.

That, of course, also sounds like Pete Buttigieg, who is championing non-car transportation and trying to stop planned expressway expansions. Many of the seemingly groundbreaking gestures the former Democratic presidential aspirant is making, like riding his bike to cabinet meetings or denouncing the racist history of highway policy, have precedent during Barack Obama’s presidency.

“People keep saying I’ve never heard a secretary of transportation talk like this, but actually Ray LaHood talked a lot like this and Anthony Foxx did too,” says Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America.

Advocates of more diverse forms of mobility, like Osborne, welcome Buttigieg’s rhetorical and performative stances. But if the notion of a more activist federal transportation agency builds off the work of LaHood and Foxx, their time in office also holds a lesson about the limits of even the most progressive staffing in this wing of the federal bureaucracy.

“The real warning to me is it’s not enough to say great things,” says Osborne, who served as deputy assistant secretary for transportation policy under LaHood. “One of the great frustrations I have with Democrats is they have ultimate confidence in their ability to run things well and to push a new conversation. They have so much confidence that they seem to not feel the need to make actual structural change that will survive them.”

USDOT's Large, Inflexible Budget

Created in 1966 by a law signed by President Lyndon Johnson, the Department of Transportation (USDOT) looks imposing on paper. It has 55,000 employees, a roughly $90 billion budget, and a vast network of local offices in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

But USDOT has never been considered one of the stronger arms of the federal bureaucracy. Most of its tens of thousands of workers are air traffic controllers, working for the Federal Aviation Administration. The large budget is inflexible and the secretary of transportation enjoys minimal discretion.

Historically, USDOT leaders have been charged with little more than overseeing the distribution of funds based on strict formulas that allocate resources to the states. As a result, advocates say that since the creation of the highway system, at the federal level American transportation policy involves little actual policymaking. There are exceptions like the sundering of passenger rail from the freight companies in the 1970s and the intervention in the 1980s to provide federal support to mass transit. But for the most part, U.S. infrastructure initiatives simply pour money through the Highway Trust Fund and the Airport Improvement Program.

The overwhelming majority of those funds get spent on roadways, and state authorities have a largely free hand when it comes to which projects are selected and how they are designed. As with other areas of policymaking, the outcomes for marginalized communities, and especially for Black neighborhoods, have too often been traumatic.

“For most of the agency’s life, the policy has been federalism,” says Anthony Foxx, who served as mayor of Charlotte, N.C., before leading USDOT. “There wasn’t a lot of discussion about where highways were built, who was being connected, whose communities were getting divided. Some neighborhoods never recovered.”

Those selected to officiate over the dispersal of highway funds tended to be allies of a president who were owed a favor or inoffensive pols of the opposite party, appointed to secure a partisan flank. When Obama nominated Republican Congressman Ray LaHood to helm the agency, many progressive groups viewed the selection as another chapter in this less than illustrious history. A president promising bipartisanship had fulfilled a campaign promise at the expense of good policymaking, the reasoning went.

Changes Begin Under Obama

But LaHood quickly disproved such notions. Soon after his appointment, he proposed a Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) tax to supplement or replace the diminishing returns of the gasoline tax. His suggestion was immediately shot down by the Obama administration in almost the exact same fashion that Buttigieg’s promotion of a VMT tax was vetoed by Biden’s team.

LaHood also became a proponent of high-speed rail, and non-car transportation of all kinds. He championed the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program, a small fund begun in the 2009 stimulus package that dispersed two-thirds of its Obama-era resources to rail, transit, ports and other non-auto-oriented efforts. The resources for bike and pedestrian projects were especially notable because USDOT had never prioritized such projects in the past (during Donald Trump’s administration all such spending was eliminated from TIGER’s books).

“I do think, between myself and Anthony Foxx and now Secretary Buttigieg, there is a lot more non-traditional thinking [at USDOT],” says LaHood. “We accomplished a lot. I wish it would have been more aggressive, I wish it would have been more money. But we were living within the constraints of a White House that had a number of priorities of things they wanted to get done.”

When Foxx took over from LaHood, he had an even unfriendlier Congress to deal with. Although the tweaks he could make to federal policy were minimal, he used his bully pulpit to emphasize the racist history of American highway construction in a way that no other USDOT leader ever had. His hometown of Charlotte was a stark example (and he’s clearly been a little irritated that commentators have forgotten about his campaign).

“For a long time, federal transportation policy was like a freight train running,” says Foxx, who works as chief policy officer for Lyft. “There were a lot of unexamined assumptions about why federal policy was set up the way it was that these two administrations have begun to question.”

Buttigieg and the Biden Era

Today, Buttigieg is following in Foxx’s footsteps and denouncing those same inequitable urban planning practices. His USDOT is also challenging plans for highway expansions in cities like Houston, already home to some of the largest freeways in the world, and which opponents argue will have similarly disparate impacts.

Buttigieg is also one of the primary cheerleaders for Biden’s infrastructure plan, which includes what could potentially be the most dramatic change to federal transportation policy since the 1950s. Massive allocations for intercity passenger rail, mass transit, and motor vehicle safety are included, a sharp contrast with previous efforts. Money is also provided to tear down urban highways, and redress old racist building practices. Unlike during Foxx’s tenure, the Democrats control both houses of Congress.

That doesn’t mean these changes will actually occur. The Democrats’ majorities in Congress could not be tighter, and Sen. Joe Manchin has made clear his desire for bipartisan compromise. That could mean a dramatically downsized bill, if one passes at all.

“The Senate continues to be dominated by rural states, senators like compromise, and that means reaffirming the status quo is likely to be really appealing,” says Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “It’s just a reality about how Congress works and that makes systemic change really difficult to accomplish.”

But Freemark says the dialogue around transportation has evolved since LaHood’s time at UDOT, and there is a growing interest in planning for alternatives to a two-car household lifestyle. The previous two Democratically appointed secretaries of transportation had something to do with that shift, as does the ever-escalating climate crisis and transportation’s massive role in fueling it. LaHood’s and Foxx’s policies represent a serious break with precedent, even if the overwhelming preponderance of resources were still spent on the same old highway projects.

At the very least, advocates hope Buttigieg and Biden can win a little more. The question is how much will be sacrificed in service of passing a bill that could get Republican support?

“This proposal from the White House looks different because it talks about what it wants to achieve more than just spreading money around,” says Osborne. “The real question is, as we talk about an infrastructure proposal, does policy stay in the discussion? Or do we go back to our default, which is really just putting money around, not about what we’re going to get for it?”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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