SXSW: Pete Buttigieg says passenger rail—like that included in Project Connect—should be a 'national priority'
In an optimistic conversation with MSNBC's Jonathan Capehart, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the SXSW audience that updated passenger rail transportation should be a "national priority" to make for a more equitable and greener America.
Local transit advocates say Buttigieg's support will be critical to the success of Austin's Project Connect, a $7.1 billion overhaul of the city's transit system. About half of the project's budget will come from a city property tax rate increase, which Austin voters overwhelmingly approved last November. The rest will need to come from federal grants overseen by the U.S. Department of Transportation, which Buttigieg heads.
The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and an underdog 2020 presidential candidate, Buttigieg took office as transportation secretary in early February. Shortly after, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 passed, sending another round of stimulus checks to households.
Our Keynote with U.S. Secretary of Transportation @PeteButtigieg in conversation with @MSNBC's @CapehartJ will begin at 1pm CT on Channel 1! #SXSWhttps://t.co/7BkY3HlYxMpic.twitter.com/yHZVdLNSWy
— SXSW (@sxsw) March 18, 2021
Buttigieg said that was a hopeful moment—he watched airline workers "tear up those furlough notices" and emerge from a tough period. He says his plan to improve transportation gives him the same feeling.
"We can't fight COVID unless we have a healthy transportation sector, we can't get people their vaccines," Buttigieg said. "(That is) one of the reasons why supporting transit matters so much, especially for people who are transit dependent and don't have access to a car. All of these things are connected and the design of the American Rescue Plan recognized that and I'm thrilled that it passed."
Thinking back to his teenage years in the 1990s, Buttigieg was struck when an openly gay ambassador nominated by the Clinton Administration got jammed up in the Senate, never getting a vote. Buttigieg, who came out as gay in 2015, remembered feeling that despite his talents people would view him in a bad light.
"Just a generation or two ago, I mean, certainly within the memory of some people watching this program, there were people who, never mind being a soldier or a cabinet officer... you were considered a threat, just by virtue of being different," Buttigieg said. "It's a reminder of how much has changed."
Not a stranger to adversity, Buttigieg said he wants to use his position to uplift communities and shift the focus on greener policies from a Republican-versus-Democrat narrative to something that is more constructive.
After all, people everywhere are affected by climate change. Buttigieg said that people in rural communities—think farmers—are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, like natural disasters, citing the two "once-in-a-millennium floods" that hit South Bend during Buttigieg's second term as mayor.
"I think we can be having conversations that are not red state, blue state conversations for American community, conversations about how we can win by doing the right thing on climate," Buttigieg said. "This is not just a coastal concern."
When we talk about systemic racism, Buttigieg said we don't often talk about how it affected infrastructure, sometimes literally built—or not built—in.
Buttigieg wants to start getting ahead of issues now by tackling areas like transportation deserts, which he likened to food deserts, regions where people have limited access to reliable and safe transportation.
"A transit desert is really an opportunity desert because you can't get to a job," Buttigieg said. "We can't allow people to be on the brink like that and that's part of why we need to have equity on our minds as we're making what could be one of the biggest investments we've ever made as a country in the future of our transportation."
America's infrastructure is built around cars, not human beings, Buttigieg said, which causes a lot more problems that meet the eye. It isn't a one size fits all approach—some areas need bigger roads and room to grow, while others, like Texas, he said, could use some downsizing.
"It turns out that we're better off if our decisions revolve not around the car, but around the human being," Buttigieg said. "The design choices we make: how fast cars move, whether there's bike lanes, and sidewalks sharing the space with travel lanes, green space, even, all of this is part of that picture. It's an example of what it means to have a truly forward approach on infrastructure."
His comment arrives as the Texas Department of Transportation is in the early stages of a $7.5 billion I-35 expansion project, which proposes to expand the highway to up to 20 lanes between Hwy. 290 and Ben White Boulevard.
Project Connect supports Buttigieg's goal of reaching a carbon neutral world by 2050 and includes $300 million in funding for anti-displacement initiatives to avoid the accelerated gentrification caused by pasted transit investments, such as the construction of MoPac in 1971 and I-35 in the 1960s.
Buttigieg said he wants only the best for the future of American transportation, which starts with talking about different solutions to the problem—not debating whether it exists.
"Often we think of (climate change) in terms of doom and I understand why—the scenarios are terrifying for what will happen if we don't get a handle on what's already happened in this country from Texas freezing over, to wildfires out west, floods in my part of the country and more," Buttigieg said. "Ultimately, I want us to be thinking about climate not as a source of doom but as a point of pride. I think, frankly, pride is a little more of a propulsive and less of a paralyzing emotion than guilt."
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- San Marcos favorite Industry Burger opens "mid-October" on E. 5th, featuring "low key healthy" Texas fare.
- Still Austin Whiskey Co. introduces "The Artist," its new rye whiskey.
- Domain NORTHSIDE favorites Bakery Lorraine, Grimaldi's Pizzeria, Jeni's Ice Cream and Sprinkles released their fall flavors.
- Cinnaholic at The Arboretum opens Friday, October 14, serving "create your own" cinnamon rolls and other sweet treats.
- San Francisco's Marufuku Ramen opens next Wednesday, October 12, in the Mueller District.
- Carpenter Hotel announces its popup food truck, Lil Carpenter, open Fri-Sun both ACL weekends, serving what you want, early to late, coffee to donuts, to dogs/burgers/fries/beer.
With major entertainment events slated for October, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is gearing up for a busy month.
Artists and music lovers are set to pack into Zilker Park for The Austin City Limits Music Festival in the coming two weekends. Following that, Formula One will bring racing fans to the Circuit of the Americas.
For those two events, the airport is anticipating high passenger days with 30,000 or more people departing flights.
ABIA recommends arriving at least two and a half hours in advance for domestic flights on those days. For ACL, it's expected on both Sundays of the festival along with the Monday and Tuesday after. The F1-driven high passenger days are expected on Oct. 20-21 and Oct. 23-26.
\u201c#AustinCityLimits visitors, you\u2019re in for a weird and wild ride \ud83e\udd18\u262e\ufe0f \n\nFlying in or out of our airport? We got firm and fun tips for you: https://t.co/RawVRalOXN\u201d— Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) (@Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (AUS)) 1664894083
F1, especially, could draw in loads of travelers as the three-day event saw 400,000 attendees last year. ABIA warns that highways leading to the airport may see even higher traffic than usual around the event and that travelers should plan their route accordingly.
Bailey Grimmett, a spokesperson for ABIA, said travel numbers come in 24 hours in advance. So, it's hard to predict if the airport will see travel volumes at the same levels that have happened around previous F1 races or if it'll top ACL's flight traffic.
Still, she says historical knowledge points to a chance for it.
“We've had that Monday after F1 break the record for single busiest in airport history," Grimmett said. "So context clues I would say yes, but I can't confirm that. But the historical background points to that."
In anticipation of the high volume of flyers, the airport received additional TSA officers for security screening through the end of October. To prepare even further, the Department of Aviation and partners hosted a job showcase and hiring fair to address the continued labor shortage the airport has experienced.
Relief from hectic travel days is on the horizon with November likely to see a slowdown.
"I don't anticipate it will be as busy as October just because we don't have as many events going on," Grimmett said. "Thanksgiving is kind of our primary holiday that we see a lot of passengers coming in and out of the airport."