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Pete Buttigieg, trains, and a new vision of U.S. transportation

December 15, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden nominated Pete Buttigieg as his Transportation Secretary this week. We can’t know what Buttigieg’s priorities will be, much less what’s possible. But there are hopeful signs for people who want trains to play a central role in a new vision of what the U.S. transportation system can be.

As mayor of South Bend, IN, for eight years, Buttigieg was a strong advocate for double-tracking the Gary and Michigan City, IN segment of the South Shore line to South Bend.  The Federal Transportation Administration recently awarded the South Shore project a $50.6 million allocation.  The upgrades will reduce travel times and double the South Shore’s ridership between Northern Indiana and Chicago. The project also has the potential to vastly improve train service from Chicago and Northern Indiana to Michigan.

More broadly, Buttigieg has articulated a big-picture vision for moving the U.S. transportation system away from the chokehold of car culture.

During his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president earlier this year, Buttigieg put forward a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that called for investing $150 billion in public transportation and trains. More interesting and promising than the funding levels, though, is Buttigieg’s willingness to re-imagine transportation.

For example, he calls for evaluating federal transportations projects based on new metrics, like how well they connect people with jobs and services. And in an interview with City Lab last year, Buttigieg talked about creating a new transportation paradigm. “We can’t expect people to move beyond personally owned vehicles if there’s not a good alternative,” he said. “So we’ve got to make sure that between ride-sharing, public transportation, and just good old fashioned walking and biking, we’ve got an array of options. The United States subsidizes driving a tremendous amount. We’re more reluctant to support transit or things like trains. When I’m president, I envision making that a greater balance and supporting cities that are trying to do that, too, because if we get it right, it’s also more sustainable, more healthy, and more economically friendly.”

Buttigieg won’t have a chance to pursue those goals as president (at least in the near term). But if he pushes forward this vision of “greater balance” in our transportation system, he could have a big impact as Biden’s Transportation Secretary. Stay tuned.

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