Trying something new, an emergency out-of-schedule post on Pete Buttigieg and the Department of Transportation!
I love transportation policy and know a fair amount about it. Most people who write about politics do not love transportation policy but do have strong feelings about Mayor Pete. That’s leading to a lot of bad takes.
Secretary of Transportation is a job that very frequently goes to a politician with weak technical credentials, and it’s better to have it be an up-and-comer like Pete than an over-the-hiller like Roy LaHood.
I am particularly pleased by Buttigieg’s transparent ambition. The worst-case scenario for this job is something like Obama’s second Transportation Secretary, Anthony Foxx, who was supposed to be a rising star but just parlayed his time in the cabinet into being a lobbyist for Lyft. Pete wants to be president, not to lobby for Lyft.
I do not love the level of amateurism in the American government and in principle would like to see a subject matter expert do this job. But it’s tricky.
America is good at highways, and when George W. Bush made Mary Peters, a career highway person, his Secretary of Transportation she did a good job with trying to push smart highway policy ideas. So an experienced, competent highway professional could’ve been a direction to take here.
But America is not good at the kinds of things progressives are most interested in — rail and transit — and getting a career member of the kind of dysfunctional bureaucracies that don’t know how to board a train, have sky-high construction costs, and antiquated commuter rail operations would not be good.
It’s not a coincidence that Andy Byford, who did a really good job during his brief stint running the MTA, is not an American. Andrew Cuomo fired him for terrible reasons, he’d probably have been my dream Department of Transportation pick, and if Biden could convince him to leave London to run the Federal Railroad Administration that would be great.
Speaking of FRA, the Secretary of Transportation is a weak office. There’s not a lot happening at “Main Transportation” — the authorities reside at the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Highway Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, etc.
Pete’s transportation record as mayor is really good. He was a complete streets guy, he improved the commuter rail connection to Chicago, he legalized ADUs, expanded missing middle housing, and reduced parking minimums.
HUD has “housing” in the title but to the extent that there is a federal agency that could push for better housing policy, it’s DOT which runs various competitive grant programs and could try to make project approvals driven by complementary land use ideas.
There is a lot of interest in mass transit in the media (including from me) but the job is not Secretary of Mass Transit and most of America is a transit desert.does Indiana even have mass transit lolPresident-elect Joe Biden is expected to pick former South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg to head the transportation department, according to three people familiar with the plans. https://t.co/aF0lSjgXXqLos Angeles Times @latimes
Not only is the job mostly not about transit, but even more importantly the federal government is a peripheral player in transit. If you want better transit you need to take it up with Andrew Cuomo or Gavin Newsom or Charlie Baker or whoever else.
By contrast, the federal government is a fairly dominant player in aviation policy and there’s a lot happening here from the FAA’s NextGen project to Boom Aviation trying to make supersonic passenger aircraft great again. Also tons of drone stuff.
I hope this is obvious to everyone, but it just can’t be stressed heavily enough that social media performative Pete-hatred is not actually about Pete.
I’d say most generously it’s about an accurate sense that his existence threatens the young socialist left’s belief that the future belongs to them. Joe Biden, yesterday’s man, is easy to live with. So is the politically clumsy Kamala Harris. But the prospect of a charismatic, talented, ambitious normie Democrat who’s not going away any time soon is terrifying.
But this is good! Right now Democratic Party politics is largely polarized between an ossified and uninspiring establishment and a group of young, dynamic leftists who are wildly out of touch with political reality. Fresh faces who know how to be interesting while also knowing how to read public opinion surveys are exactly what the country needs.
As Josh Barro writes, Secretary of Transportation is possibly the only job in Washington for which the ability to speak Italian is genuinely useful. Italy has a reputation for bad governance but they are good at cost-effective transportation construction. The MTA claims that it’s hard to dig under an old city like New York, but if they can dig under fucking Rome then it should be possible to handle New York. Call some Italian guys!
Last but by no means least, I am not that well-versed in this technology but we appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough in self-driving cars as well as a breakthrough in solid-state batteries for electric cars. These are potentially game-changing technologies in terms of quality of life and environmental sustainability, so anything the Transportation Secretary can do to nudge them along is a really big deal.
Would love to read a series going position-by-position through the cabinet to talk about what levers for progress they can actually pull. Between DOT's scope, energy's arms oversight, and interior's NA affairs I think there's a lot of misunderstanding of what each position could do. And you've been a rare font of positivity about the future lately.
Cannot understand the intensity of the Mayor Pete hate from young people ( I went to a rally for him and it was funny how rule following -- no line cutting -- and pretty normie the crowd was, while my husband, who went with me because it was Valentine's Day was a little worried about how it impacted his reputation). I wish him luck and hope somehow we get better bike lanes since we're not likely to get significantly better mass transit and I hate driving a car in traffic.