Officials pin hopes on Buttigieg as he prepares to steer U.S. transportation
Local road budgets are busted. Metra trains are empty and O'Hare International Airport is far below capacity. Pothole season is looming -- and we're still in the grip of a pandemic.
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Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a Rhodes scholar and former U.S. Navy Reserve officer, was named as Transportation Secretary-designate Dec. 15 by President-elect Joe Biden.
"Americans should not settle for less than our peers in the developed world when it comes to our roads and bridges, our railways and transit systems," Buttigieg said at his nomination.
Both Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Regional Transportation Authority Chairman Kirk Dillard, a Republican, called the choice "outstanding."
"Mayor Pete has been to Chicago early and often. He gets the Indianas, and Illinois, and Michigans of the world," Dillard noted. Most importantly for the RTA, Buttigieg "has been a champion of mass transit," added Dillard.
Pritzker said "Illinois will be in a strong position under his leadership because he understands that we are one of the world's greatest transportation hubs."
The governor and others are hopeful the Biden administration will deliver a long-absent federal capital program.
"We are one of the most prepared states to multiply the impact of any federal infrastructure bill," Pritzker said.
As a rival to Biden in the Democratic primary, Buttigieg introduced a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that proposed spending $160 billion on public transit, and fixing 50% of the nation's crumbling bridges and roads within 10 years. He sought to "reconnect" impoverished and minority communities bisected by huge highway projects.
Using the Department of Transportation platform, his priorities include job creation, racial equity and curbing climate change.
"We must put millions of new electric vehicles on America's roads," Buttigieg said in a tweet.
Some have belittled Buttigieg's mayoral experience, but Hanover Park Mayor and Metra director Rod Craig said it's a plus.
Buttigieg will offer "a vision from the bottom up as opposed to the top down," he explained. And Buttigieg won't need primers about crucial suburban projects like western access to O'Hare, Craig said.
The first openly gay Cabinet secretary proposed to his husband Chasten at O'Hare. "Don't let anybody tell you that O'Hare isn't romantic," Buttigieg quipped at a Dec. 16 event. He also talked about constrained local budgets, saying "I faced a constant battle with that natural enemy of every mayor: the pothole."
Buttigieg is no stranger to toll systems living near the Indiana Toll Road that leads into Illinois, as does the South Shore commuter train line, which stops in South Bend.
As mayor from 2012 to 2020, Buttigieg spearheaded a massive streetscape program that gained accolades for reviving the downtown but also criticism about the $21 million price tag, according to the South Bend Tribune.
"The dynamism he showed as a mayor raises hope that we'll see new policies that bring more of our struggling transportation into the 21st century," DePaul University transportation professor Joe Schwieterman said. "We could see improved rail service and creative ways to finance highway improvements, for instance."
So far, many in the industry from the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers to the American Council of Engineers are supportive of the former management consultant.
"We believe Mr. Buttigieg could play a critical role in modernizing the nation's transportation system," ACEC Director Kevin Artl said.
Biden was known as "Amtrak Joe" because of the daily commutes he took between Washington D.C. and Delaware as senator.
"Amtrak no doubt is delighted that we have a president who is pro-rail and a transportation secretary who hails from a community that has long been an important stop for its intercity trains," Schwieterman said.
You should know
Go lightly on the gas pedal when you're in Chicago. The city begins a warning program for cars traveling 6 to 10 mph over the speed limit on Friday. Fines from $35 to $100 kick in on March 1.