Pete Buttigieg has become the de facto hype man for Joe Biden’s newly released $2 trillion infrastructure plan. A great deal of the proposed spending — for road and bridge repairs, rail service expansions, public transit investments, electric vehicle charging stations — falls into the former South Bend mayor’s new domain now that he’s secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Since the American Jobs Plan was released at the end of March, Buttigieg has been making the rounds on television news programs to sell the plan. Mostly he has been forced to defend it from semantic attacks over the meaning of the word “infrastructure.”
It’s no secret that the proposal is, at heart, about much more than road repair. It addresses all kinds of foundational needs required for a healthy and just society, including eldercare, internet access, and lead-free drinking water pipes.
“If you can’t count on a glass of clean, safe drinking water, you’re not free,” Buttigieg told Grist. “And you’re not able to live a life of your choosing.”
Crucially, the Biden administration’s plan is also meant to toggle the U.S. economy out of self-destruct mode when it comes to climate change. The proposal contains pivotal climate policies, like new requirements for utilities to procure clean energy, improved incentives for homeowners and businesses to transition to renewable energy and electric cars, and a strategy to electrify homes.
Grist recently spoke with Buttigieg about how the American Jobs Plan will tackle climate change and undo past harms — and what the word “infrastructure” might mean in the future. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Q. What do you think the most important measure in the Americans Jobs Plan is when it comes to tackling climate change?
A. It’s hard to pick just one. A lot of it revolves around our energy infrastructure and our vehicle electrification future. This contains major provisions for incentives to encourage the adoption of American-made electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. We know even as the cost comes down, the range could still be a barrier to people going electric, and we really need to accelerate that.
More broadly I’d say it’s very important that we create alternatives to how people move around. It’s not just making sure vehicles are electric. It’s making sure people have alternatives to bringing two tons of metal along with them everywhere they go, if it makes more sense for them to get around on two wheels or on public transit. So we’re trying to make sure that we expand access to transit, and are doubling resources, in fact, across communities large and small, to have a better rail system in this country — which Americans have been wanting for a long time — and make sure we have a grid to back it up.
Q. This bill calls for building 10 times the number of electric vehicle charging stations than exist today. What does that look like on the ground? And how do you make sure they aren’t just built in upper income neighborhoods, as has been the case so far?
A. We’ve got to make sure that electric vehicles do not remain a luxury item. That’s part of why the purchase incentives are there, but it’s also part of where these charging stations go. You’ll notice throughout the American Jobs Plan a real focus on equity, especially because we know that in the past, transportation spending in the U.S. has actually made things worse, especially for Black and brown neighborhoods.
We get a chance to get that right this time. And so there’s a very conscious effort, including the Justice40 Initiative. The White House is calling on 40 percent of all of our work to go toward disadvantaged and excluded communities. That’s going to help us make sure that resources go out in a way that enhances rather than reduces equity.
Q. How do you build 500,000 charging stations? Who’s in charge of that?
A. We need to be working with a structure that creates incentives that are appropriate within the private sector, but isn’t afraid to be in the public sector. We really have to kickstart this industry. We can’t just let things play out along the timeline we’re currently on, or it’s not going to be fast enough to meet climate imperatives.
The deadline for getting to carbon neutral, the deadlines for tackling climate change, they’re not actually being set by politicians in Washington, they’re being set by science, they’re being set by the planet. Now the question is whether we actually do what it takes to keep up.
Q. Why are charging stations and water lines infrastructure? And what else do you think could be included under that umbrella in the future?
A. To me, infrastructure is the foundation that makes it possible for Americans to thrive. And that includes things like roads and bridges, but it also includes things like pipes. If you can’t count on a glass of clean, safe drinking water, you’re not free. And you’re not able to live a life of your choosing. So, fixing lead pipes, as the president is proposing, is absolutely an infrastructure investment — and, by the way, one of the best investments we can make in future generations.
Same thing with broadband, though broadband is a little newer. That certainly wasn’t being considered when Eisenhower was setting up the interstate system. But part of what it means to make good infrastructure choices is to think about the future and not just the past. The bottom line about these measures is that they’re needed, they’re supported by the American people, and they’re worth doing.
By its definition, infrastructure is something that’s always evolving. Right now I’m working to make sure folks understand that the national airspace is also part of our infrastructure that’s served by a lot of tangible, physical things like our system of airports and air-traffic control. I can see a future where that evolves further with things like drone deliveries, and further still with commercial space travel. But the needs we do know about — like the fact that digital infrastructure is as important a way of connecting as highway infrastructure in today’s economy — we’ve gotta act on.
Q. This plan also includes $20 billion to reconnect communities that have been torn up by highway projects in the past. What does that mean? Does that just look like highway removal?
A. Sometimes it does. So we know there are cases where a highway divided a Black neighborhood, for example, and people are cut off, simply by the highway being where it is, and it could, perhaps, go underground. That’s been done in some communities. But that’s not the only answer, and it’s not the right answer everywhere.
Sometimes it’s about adding rather than subtracting. Maybe you have a community where there’s a north-south corridor that cuts off the east side from the west side. So then what we need to do is create connections from east to west. I remember the mayor of Mount Vernon, a community in New York that’s a comparatively lower-income community, explaining to me that it’s sometimes easier for her residents to get into Manhattan than it is to go across town to go to the grocery at certain times of day. Taking into account community needs is part of what it means to have equity in our infrastructure spending.
Q. Does this package do enough to transform our transportation system to be climate friendly and resilient? And if not, do you think there’ll be another opportunity in this administration to ask for more?
A. This is the biggest proposed investment in American jobs since World War II, and I would not expect an opportunity like this to come along again, perhaps in our lifetimes. It is rare to have this alignment, this perfect storm if you will, of public impatience, bipartisan interest, demonstrated need, economic conditions, and a very supportive president to actually get something big done. So I think that it’s a historic moment. I’m thinking of the transcontinental railroad, Eisenhower, and the interstate system — I think this is a moment like that, to really do what it takes.