Pete Buttigieg touts transit, climate-friendly solutions at Baltimore appearance

Published 10/10/2023 8:11 p.m. EDT, Updated 10/12/2023 11:58 a.m. EDT

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks at iMPACT Maryland, a thought leadership conference hosted by The Baltimore Banner on Tuesday, Oct.10, 2023, in Baltimore.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stressed the importance of making electric vehicles more affordable and improving transit options during an appearance Tuesday in Baltimore, highlighting them as ways the Biden administration can fight climate change.

Appearing at iMPACT MARYLAND, a daylong event focused on innovative ideas organized by The Baltimore Banner, Buttigieg touted wins from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and affirmed his support for active community engagement in transportation projects.

“We’re so excited about the projects that we’re able to fund in Maryland,” Buttigieg said early in a conversation with Banner reporter Pamela Wood before an audience at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Buttigieg noted that the bipartisan infrastructure package passed in 2021 is helping to pay for concourse upgrades at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport as well as ongoing projects at the Port of Baltimore, among others.

President Joe Biden has also stressed that federal infrastructure dollars will cover much of the cost of a multibillion-dollar project to replace an outdated passenger train tunnel in Baltimore that is a frequent source of delays.

But then it seemed like Buttigieg knew something that the rest of Maryland didn’t.

Twice throughout the conversation, Buttigieg referred to the “east-west bus rapid transit connector,” buzz words that tuned attention towards the planned Red Line linking East and West Baltimore. Gov. Wes Moore recommitted the state to building the transit project — which would be the first true transit addition to Baltimore since the 1992 debut of the north-south light rail — that was canceled by former Gov. Larry Hogan in 2015.

The Maryland Transit Administration recently released six potential routes for the Red Line — three light rail and three bus rapid transit — that are now the final options under consideration. And the possibility of bus rapid transit winning out over light rail, which already has some local transit advocates searching for their pitchforks, wasn’t supposed to have been decided yet.

“Mode has not been determined yet, and I say that definitively,” said Allison Scott, senior project director for the Red Line. Shortly after Buttigieg’s remarks, Scott told The Banner that the public shouldn’t read too much into his apparent nod towards BRT.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks at iMPACT Maryland, a thought leadership conference hosted by The Baltimore Banner on Tuesday, Oct.10, 2023, in Baltimore.

It’s also possible that the transportation secretary was referencing the $22 million that Maryland received in 2021 through a RAISE grant, an MTA spokesperson added. The grant has allowed city and state transportation officials to begin building out 10 miles of dedicated bus lanes along the east-west corridor, a short-to-medium term solution to the transportation problems that the Red Line aims to address in the long term.

If anything, Scott hopes that the public will heed Buttigieg’s words regarding the importance of community engagement in transit projects and attend one of four planned MTA open houses. She said that a decision regarding the future Red Line’s mode will take place after this next round of community input.

Buttigieg — the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who is known to many as “Mayor Pete” — rose to prominence as a Democratic presidential candidate in 2020. He was appointed by President Joe Biden in 2021 and, at 41, is the youngest secretary of transportation in U.S. history.

Working with different local communities while serving as a mayor of his hometown of South Bend is something the secretary reflected fondly upon during Tuesday’s conversation.

“I think about my experience as mayor every day — it is by far the one that most shapes my approach to this job, partly because I remember what it was like to be a mayor of a city that is not the largest city knocking on the door of the U.S. Department of Transportation,” Buttigieg said.

His appearance Tuesday was interrupted by Climate Defiance protesters carrying signs and shouting criticism of a Texas petrochemical project. Yelling “Stop Petro Pete” and other slogans, members of the Climate Defiance protest want DOT to reject permits for the Sea Port Oil Terminal crude export facility located 30 miles off the coast of Brazoria County, Texas.

Buttigieg highlighted the Biden administration’s efforts to combat climate change, saying that it was “clear we need to decarbonize the transportation sector.”

As part of that fight, Buttigieg said he’s confident the United States can reach the goal of half of all car sales being electric vehicles by the end of the decade. And he noted that equity is a key concern — both in making EVs more affordable for all car buyers and intentional investment in where charging stations get built. He said that the Biden administration is investing $7.5 billion in charging infrastructure.

But it’s not just the vehicles — Buttigieg said that one of the most important ways to fight climate change is by investing in reliable, frequent public transit. The remark was one of several to be immediately followed by applause.

Buttigieg credited Maryland’s two U.S. senators, Democrats Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin, with helping to pass the 2021 infrastructure bill. He said state leaders such as Gov. Wes Moore are key partners in making the vision of the legislation a reality.

A group of protestors from Climate Defiance interrupted a discussion with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg at iMPACT Maryland, a thought leadership conference hosted by The Baltimore Banner on Tuesday, Oct.10, 2023, in Baltimore.

Noting the intersection of transportation, climate and public health, Buttigieg referenced many projects that could fall under the umbrella of consideration in Justice40, a goal of the Biden administration to ensure that 40% of certain federal investments flow to marginalized communities overburdened by pollution.

In an interview with The Banner after the conversation, Buttigieg shared some of the considerations that factor into Justice40 and how Maryland can distinguish itself when vying for federal dollars for transportation projects.

“Bring us the data, show us the income levels in these census tracts, show us the way that these communities have been overburdened and underserved in the past, show us the safety data,” he said. “Following the data is not a bloodless exercise in analytical purity, it’s a chance to put dollars where they’re going to make the biggest difference.”

Daniel Zawodny covers transportation for The Baltimore Banner as a corps member with Report For America, a national service organization that places emerging journalists with local newsrooms that cover underreported issues.

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