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U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg Joins Morning Rush

Secretary Buttigieg speaks on rising energy costs, the future of electric vehicles, infrastructure and more.
Posted at 3:36 PM, Mar 09, 2022

ALEX LIVINGSTON: You have been a vocal advocate of electronic vehicles and long-term, yes that may be an answer to  high gas prices... but what can be done now?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: That's right, today most Americans don't have electric vehicles and that's not going to change overnight, so we're feeling that pain at the pump. When a major oil producing nation gets into a war there will be consequences for global oil markets. It's one of the reasons why the president has taken some of the actions that are available to help blunt the impact of some of those shots. Things like working with other partner nations to release 60 million barrels from the strategic reserves — about half of which came from the United States — to help stabilize those global oil prices. At the same time, there's no getting around it. As long as we are reliant on these sources of fuel, we are impacted by this volatility. It could be half a world away and could still hit us in our pocketbook and our family budget at the pump right here in the United States.

LIVINGSTON: You mentioned electric vehicles but right now the average price for one of those is around $50,000 or so, so that's still out of reach for a lot of Americans. How are we going to reach this cleaner, greener world we imagine?

BUTTIGIEG: First of all, we have proposals to buy down the cost of electric vehicles by more than $10,000 in tax incentives — which the House supported. We're hoping that at least a couple of Republicans would be willing to get on board with getting Americans a $10,000 - $12,000 price break on those electric vehicles to make them more affordable. Although, I would also mention a second thing about these averages that are getting thrown around. Let's be clear, those averages count luxury cars too. You can get an excellent electric pickup truck, for example, made in the U.S., for high 30s low 40s. That's still out of reach for too many families, which is why we're trying to reduce that price point. But you can already save a lot of money if you're able to afford an electric car because it's cheaper to maintain, cheaper to own and cheaper to fill up. That is exactly why we need to be doing everything we can to make electric vehicles more affordable and to put out those chargers across the country that gives confidence to anyone considering buying an electric vehicle that they can get where they need to go. The range on these things is pretty good — 200, 300, 400 miles — but depending on your pattern of life, you may really be counting on those chargers in between your home and where you need to go.

ROB NELSON: With the price of gas right now you may see more folks turning to EVs as just a smarter and potentially cheaper opportunity. Mr. Secretary, you also talked about the federal gas tax as a means of helping pay for some infrastructure spending. Gas prices are obviously off the charts right now and this could go on for a couple of months, according to experts. So, is raising that tax — at least in your mind — an option still on the table?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, we're definitely not talking about raising taxes. There are different proposals out there for tax relief and we're going to continue seeing a lot of options floated. But let's remember, we are dealing with the immediate situation and also playing a long game where we need to be building the kind of infrastructure that's going to give us alternatives when it comes to energy and give us alternatives when it comes to getting around. Not only do we want Americans to have the ability to afford and use a great electric vehicle, but we also want to make sure that you don't have to bring two tons of metal with you everywhere you go, by ensuring there are excellent options for transit available to Americans. It's part of why  — as part of the American Rescue Plan — we just released another $2.2 billion to shore up some of the transit agencies that were so hard hit during the pandemic. Now we're supporting them moving toward cleaner vehicles that also save taxpayer dollars because they're often cheaper to maintain and fuel as well.

LIVINGSTON: Let's talk about the infrastructure package here that is — so far — the signature legislation of the Biden Administration. What are some of the projects Americans will see that will change their lives? Let's focus on the ones that we can actually physically see and see quickly.

BUTTIGIEG: We've already put about $50 billion out  on the roads and bridges and there's more where that came from. What's that going to mean for you? You're going to notice more road repairs going on close to where you live. You're going to notice a lot more bridges being fixed, whether you have a bridge that's out completely or a lot of times you'll see that sign that says there's a load limit because the bridge is in poor condition. That means trucks can't go over it. That makes it more complicated to get deliveries where they need to go and that's a supply chain issue that ultimately increases our prices and the ability to get things to grocery stores. All of these things are connected and you're going to see this in ways that are noticeable and in ways that are a little more subtle. Looking at something like transit, that benefits you even if you drive your own car and don't use transit because there will be less congestion on the roads. These projects — some of which will be underway this year — are going to continue through this entire decade. We're also talking about large bridges and airports that need to be redesigned. Many infrastructure projects will take a few years to complete but then will define what it's like to move around America, literally for the rest of our lives.

NELSON: For some of these project it obviously takes a while to see things come to action. There are environmental studies, you have to get the money in place, the hiring and the planes, so we understand that it takes a while. But in terrs of actual ground being broken, dirt being moved and cranes in the sky, what is your expectation for when we'll see that first project, what it will be and where it will be? When will folks say 'ah, there's that $1 trillion that got the bipartisan support on Capitol Hill?' When will we get a visual here?

BUTTIGIEG: A lot of it's going to be happening this year. Some of the projects are ready to go. The only thing that's been holding them up is funding and we just solved that for some of the states or communities that are trying to make things happen. I think you'll see chargers being installed, roads being repaired and some of those things moving more quickly. By the way, projects that have been developed over a long time that we have underway now will only grow further. I want to emphasize, this isn't just about what we're going to see this week. This is about how the rest of the 21st century America will be able to compete because we are doing things in the 2020s that we probably should have done in the 1990s.

LIVINGSTON: I lived in a few different states and some of those states had barely any infrastructure for public transportation. I saw a lot of cars on the road and some of those states didn't even have buses. How is improving transit systems going to affect the larger picture of climate change that we're dealing with right now?

BUTTIGIEG: Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our economy and to me that is a challenge for us to try to be the biggest part of the solution. Whether we're talking about making vehicles cleaner or whether we're talking about making shipping cleaner — which is also a big deal and something we're doing a lot of work on. Reducing the pollution that goes into our air or just giving people transit is not just for the biggest cities. A lot of rural transit agencies are some of our best partners in helping people get around. I think there's a lot of innovation coming to transit too. It's not just the big buses. We see some transit authorities thinking about things that are almost halfway like an Uber or Lyft in terms of getting that last mile of delivering people where they need to be. I expect a lot of innovation across the 2020s on this. We're also going to see things like automation increasingly coming into transportation in this decade. That's going to affect how people get around a great deal too.

NELSON: Mr. Secretary, before we let you go I want to take a sharp turn here and get into a different story that's been in the headlines. I think it's pretty unarguable that you are the highest profile openly gay public leader in the country and when you look at some of the headlines right now — like what critics call the 'don't say gay' bill in Florida — what message do you get from what's happening in those states and what would you tell young students they should get from what's happening in certain pockets of our country? 

BUTTIGIEG: What we see here I think is frankly a lot of politics at the expense of some of our most vulnerable kids. Whether it's the 'don't say gay' bill that just passed in Florida, my husband and I have been talking about what that could mean if our kids were a little older and we lived in Florida. You know, if they came in Monday morning and kids were talking about their weekend, would a teacher have to say 'oh no, we don't talk about that in here?' In Texas, they're talking about turning in parents for being supportive of their transgender kids, when we know that support of parents is one of the things that can help us beat back the horrifyingly high level of suicide attempts and rates among LGBTQ youth. What we see right now, I think frankly, is politics. It's the ugliest kind of politics and as long as there's been politics, there have been some who think they can reap a political reward by picking a fight on people who are vulnerable. My message to those people who are vulnerable — to those kids who know that they're a little different and wonder where they're going to fit in — is that a lot of people are rooting for you to succeed. I'm rooting for you to succeed. You have a president who has your back and these kinds of cynical political attacks aren't going to carry the day in the long run. They're just not.

LIVINGSTON: Switching gears a bit here as well, the president announced plans to help veterans exposed to toxic chemicals from things like burn pits, through better health benefits and treatments. So secretary, as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, talk with us a little about what care was like when you left the service and what this bill could do for veterans.

BUTTIGIEG: This is a really important issue. When I was deployed in Afghanistan I remember folks around the base saying that breathing the air there was about the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes everyday. I'm not stating that as a scientific fact but just what people would say around the base. But what is a scientific fact is that people who have been in and around these burn pits — where a lot of things were incinerated — have much higher exposure and risk of cancer. If we're serious about taking care of our veterans, we have to be serious about taking care of the vets who were exposed. That's exactly what the president is leading us toward doing. He called for it in his State of the Union speech. It's an example of something that I hope is not at all a Republican or Democrat issue. It's just doing right by people who serve. I served my tour. Some of the people I was with served 5, 6, or 7 times in Iraq and Afghanistan. I know what they were exposed to and that commitment, that promise we have to make to take care of them. That's not just as long as you're in uniform — that's as long as you live because people put their lives on the line for this country.