Transportation, Climate Change, and Mayor Pete

Isambard Kingdom Brunel during the construction of the Great Eastern, 1857

Recently, one of President Biden’s cabinet picks has come under scrutiny, largely for the apparent youth and inexperience of the candidate. Kind of a flashback to President Reagan and the then 56-year old candidate Walter Mondale 35 years ago.  How times have changed.  Pete Buttegieg, Mayor Pete, has been nominated (and as of February 2, 2021, confirmed) to head the Department of Transportation, a large and sprawling agency with almost 56 thousand employees and a budget of $75 billion.  Almost everything you buy or touch is affected by transportation.

Mayor Pete is 39 years old and the only elected office he has held has been Mayor of a small city in Indiana.  His transportation experience has largely been limited to the 18-stop bus system in South Bend, and an eternal pothole problem.  In this discussion, there are really only two questions worth pursuing.  First, what really is the job description for US DOT Secretary? And two, how does Mayor Pete’s credentials match up to the job?  The final question will have to wait for a bit.  How well is/was he doing?

What does the US DOT Secretary Do?

At the level of a US Cabinet position, the job of Secretary is the job of a manager and administrator.  They are to guide the Department, following the lead of the President, and push the President’s mission down the line.  Historically, some Departments are highly politicized and some are not.  You could say that Secretary of State is politics played at its highest level, that it is pure politics.  Some, like Transportation, or Agriculture, seem much less politicized.  Much of this depends on whether the people back home are directly affected by the actions of the Department or not.  I can tell you, that through the Highway Trust Fund, and the Federal Highway Administration, a part of US DOT, the dollars become local and immediate.  People do care whether the roads and bridges are fixed. They care how long it takes to get to work.  They care how safe the planes are, whether the airports are open or closed, and do the trains run on time.  To that end, US DOT becomes one big meritocracy, performance-based, and it has to be functioning, or there will be hell to pay.

Back when I was working at PennDOT, we used to joke that we were in the land of engineers, these bloodless and calculating souls whose job it was to squeeze a few pennies out of a contract and to ignore everyone who was not an engineer.  By and large, working at PennDOT was a pure pleasure, since science and not religion reigned in practice.  Let’s just say when trying to figure out how to build a bridge, the engineers would consult testing results and data, not the ACLU or the Pro-Life Action League.  Roads weren’t Democrat or Republican.  I suspect it is the same as USDOT.  I raise as Exhibit A, that although the most recent Secretary was one Elaine Chao who married to a certain former Senate Majority Leader, she did have prior transportation experience and seemed to have had a good grasp of the job and how to do it.  Thinking about all of the Cabinet-level appointments made by the prior President, selecting Chao as USDOT Secretary seems to be one of the least nutty choices that was made.

Wait! This is the job?!

Under normal times, the job description would be like that of a ship’s captain, keep the vessel pointed forward and try not to wreck it on an iceberg.  The little secret about DOT and most large bureaucracies like it is that there is enough inertia within to keep it moving forward on autopilot.  Yes, everyone has to do their job, but that’s precisely the point.  The Secretary is the main liaison between the agency and the President.  Undersecretaries do most of the real work and need to have the most knowledge-base.   

But these are not normal times.  The President has made it pretty clear that grappling with the warming planet is an all-hands-on-deck enterprise. A one-government approach will be needed to address our activities to help or hurt the carbon balance.  On this specific problem, a few Departments are key.  Transportation – the sector, not the Cabinet position – contributes 36% of the CO2 into the atmosphere, and (in 2017) 29% of greenhouse gases.  The transportation sector is the largest single emitter, followed by power generation, industry and agriculture.  All of a sudden, the Transportation Department has a central place at this table and what happens at Transportation will largely determine the success or failure of President Biden’s climate policy.

What are we talking about here?  Baby steps, like CAFÉ standards, only nibble at the edges. And yes, it would be nice to have cars and trucks with higher fuel economies.  But to get to the kind of carbon neutral targets that are being proposed, the entire fleet will need to become either 100% electric or mostly electric. That includes trucks.  

Biden’s climate plan gives you an indication of what lies on Mayor Pete’s plate.  He wants to create a million new jobs in the American auto industry, building this zero-carbon future. He wants to improve the infrastructure, to include smart roads, transit networks, airports, rail, ferries, and ports.  He wants to give every city with 100,000 residents a carbon-free public transportation system, everything from light rail to buses, bikes, and pedestrians.  GM seems to be on board with this vision, but it will take much more than pliant manufacturers to get to these goals.  Roads and bridges consume enormous amounts of cement, the production of which produces a lot of CO2. DOT will need to work with manufacturers to reduce the CO2 emissions from cement manufacturing.  Trains are enormously energy efficient, but these are currently controlled mostly by private entities.  Cooperation here will be needed to improve passenger rail service (I’m sure Amtrak would like that!).  In urban areas, transit is critical to move people around, but transit has been neglected for support for decades.  Soooo… much money is needed for transit. Even in Podunk Harrisburg, transit is essential and the buses will need to be converted to electric to make a difference.

Powerful interests are lined up against a climate friendly agenda.  For any incoming Cabinet Secretary, the knives will be out before any meaningful action.  A lot of what is being proposed will require bipartisan support.  In normal times, the Secretary can guide the ship.  In these times, the Secretary will have to rebuild the ship from the keel up, while it is sailing.  Mayor Pete, welcome aboard.

How does Mayor Pete Stack Up (on paper)?

Pete Buttegieg is 39 years old and has been the mayor of South Bend, population 102,000, and a career politician with a  very short career.  How does he stack up to his 18 predecessors, who have served as US DOT Secretary since the position was created in 1967?  Well, here are some fun facts:

  • Fully half of the Secretaries had no transportation experience prior to entering the position, neither with government nor industry.
  • Five had been former majors, from cities the size of Portland, OR to Denver.  I would argue that being mayor of Denver or South Bend is basically the same kind of job and experience, when the mayor acts as the chief executive and not just the agent of city council.
  • Two other nominees were 39 years old when selected.  Pete is the youngest by a few months.  The median age is 45.

Basically, the individuals coming into the position have had a range of experiences, from transportation to law, to private industry, to politics.  Possibly the best of the group was Drew Lewis, appointed by President Reagan.  Forty-nine years old, with no transportation experience, Lewis was a former business executive and political consultant and operative. He had never held elected office.   Within the company of nominated DOT Secretaries, Peter Buttegieg’s resume doesn’t stand out nor is his an outlier.

The Unanswered Question

Mayor Pete is now our Transportation Secretary.  For the reasons stated above, he will have to draw on all of his political skills to move the Department in a direction that aligns with a carbon neutral future.  He will need vision and help. He will have to use all of his God-given smarts.  He will need to be a good listener, but lead he must if he is to succeed.  From the relatively short 55 year history of the cabinet position, nothing in his resume qualifies him or disqualifies him from the job.  In previous administrations, he would be able to sleepwalk his way through it and use it as a steppingstone to higher office or a lucrative career in industry.  In this administration, he will have to work hard to make the kinds of changes that are needed to be made.  I suspect that conversation took place a while ago between the President and Mayor Pete.  For the rest of us, we shall see.

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