Sec. Buttigieg: Infrastructure grants represent a ‘pipeline of good-paying jobs’

Transportation Secretary Buttigieg joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the Department of Transportation’s $800 million infrastructure grants, airline challenges, FAA infrastructure, self-driving technology, and more.

Video transcript


BRIAN SOZZI: President Joe Biden spoke yesterday in New York about a new $292 million grant to build a new tunnel connecting New York City to New Jersey and the rest of the Eastern corridor. The Hudson River investment, just one of the big projects coming out of Biden's infrastructure law as he hopes to build a contrast with Republicans.

Another part of that spending package announced today with the Department of Transportation announcing $800 million in grants for new projects around the US. Here to talk about that is US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. Mr. Secretary, always nice to hear from you here. A lot of money in this latest plan. Where will it be going, and what do you hope to achieve?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, we're really excited about this latest round of grants. Nine communities or areas around the US getting grants for what we call megaprojects. These are the cathedrals of our infrastructure projects-- so large, so complex that they often can't be done with traditional funding mechanisms. And so we're making sure with some of the funding from President Biden's infrastructure plan that we're helping get them to the finish line.

Yesterday I was with the president celebrating that first major piece of the Hudson River tunnels. That will stand as one of the biggest infrastructure projects going on in the United States for many years because it involves replacing tunnels that were built in 1910 that we rely on every day. Hundreds of thousands of people go through there on trains, and it's really a specific place but one of national significance.

We're funding the Brent Spence Bridge. This is a bridge that needs to be replaced connecting Ohio and Kentucky. And the president was there with Mitch McConnell signaling the bipartisan support for this kind of work announcing that project recently as well.

We've got, again, nine projects that are part of that fund, and hundreds of places around the community that we're announcing today are getting grants to make their roads and streets safer. All part of the president's infrastructure package and really shows you what it looks like as we get out of that early phase of just getting this bill passed and getting those programs set up and now starting to move this funding out to communities, to states, to transit agencies to get the work done.

JULIE HYMAN: Mr. Secretary, it's Julie here. I don't know anybody who is happy about infrastructure as it exists in this country, right? A lot of people have gripes about whether it be their local roads, their airports, et cetera, especially when you compare it with, say, other nations. How long is all of this going to take to sort of get us up to a better level? And then what kind of economic growth is that going to unlock once we are there?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, the hard truth is that we have-- excuse me, we have a backlog that has built up over decades. But the good news is we have changed the trajectory of infrastructure in the US. Instead of each passing year hearing Washington talk about a so-called infrastructure week without any results and watching that hole get deeper, that backlog get longer, we're now moving in the opposite direction.

This is the most funding we've put into roads and bridges since the interstate highway system was created in the first place. This is the most we've done for trains since Amtrak was stood up 50 years ago. And it's going to make a huge difference. Now, before you even see the first ribbon cuttings and the first projects completed, what you're going to see is the first hard hats and the first families' lives that are changing in the form of the workers who are working on this. The Hudson alone expected to ultimately involve some 70,000 jobs.

And as we look at the projects across the country, they're creating good-paying jobs. It's really a pipeline of good-paying construction jobs. Jobs, by the way, that you can do whether you have a college degree or not. They take a lot of apprenticeship training. But we're talking about money that you can build a family and raise a family on.

And you know, it's a big focus of the president, building up that middle class. And we're just thrilled about what is going to be possible in the near term and then eventually in the long term, of course, the millions and millions and millions of American jobs that will be supported by having that better infrastructure, the better airport, the better tunnel, the better bridge, the better train so that we can all get to where we're going.

BRAD SMITH: You said the better airport. These are, of course, no doubt significant investments, significant grants moving forward. But when we think about aviation and what we just saw over the course of the holiday season and what your department has initiated in terms of investigations and where some of the pitfalls actually took place, what have you been able to take away from some of those early investigations, and what type of dollar figure could we see invested in making sure that the FAA has the tools, the software that it needs to act and be a more modern operation?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, in short, we've made a lot of progress and we've got a long way to go. Last year we toughened consumer protection standards, made sure that airlines treat passengers better. We got written commitments that we can enforce, including with penalties.

And that served us well when the Southwest debacle happened because it meant that we could not just urge them but require them to make good on commitments around things like covering hotel and meal expenses, rental cars, and flights for passengers who got stranded. We've got more work to do on passenger protection, and I'm excited about some of the things we have in the works for this year.

Then you have the systems side. The FAA has been in the process of modernizing some systems for many, many years, and we've got to find ways to pick up the pace. For example, the system that had a problem that caused about an hour and a half outage earlier this month, that's something that is in the middle of an upgrade that began in 2019 and is only scheduled to be completed in 2025. Obviously I'm interested in how we can shorten the time to deliver that. So we're going to be working with Congress on getting more of the funding that we need in order to have these systems modernized.

Think about the challenge of replacing the backbone of a system that you can't ever turn off, right? The air traffic control system has to be running 24 by 7 by 365. You can't just, you know, close it down for the weekend and use that to reboot everything. And that makes it extraordinarily challenging. And the bottom line, of course, is safety.

That's why all these technologies exist. It's why the FAA exists. We have to preserve an extraordinary safety record where we have many years with zero commercial aviation deaths in-- on airlines in this country and still make a lot of changes to a system that we've been counting on that's really kind of bolted on piece by piece since the 1950s.

BRIAN SOZZI: Mr. Secretary, over the past week, we've heard the likes of Tesla, General Motors really play up their ongoing push to make cars drive by themselves, level three technology, level two technology. It's mind-blowing stuff. But the investments you're making here today or announcing today, does that set the roads up to support the technology these automakers are trying to push through?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: So it's one of the biggest things we're looking at right now, the way that automation and artificial intelligence is going to change the transportation experience for years to come. There's real promise in the technologies that you're seeing from the automakers. Eventually I think they could potentially save many, many lives.

But right now we're in a period where the technology cuts both ways, and I'm very concerned about car owners relying too much on technology that is designed to assist a driver, not to replace a driver. I think it's really important that people continue to understand it.

It's great to have these assist things that keep you in your lane, let when you're close to a car in front of you. But even the most advanced, most sophisticated, most fancy car you can buy today still absolutely requires that you have your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road, and we need to make sure that technology evolves in a safe fashion.

We also have to recognize that there will be technological developments in this decade. On top of the ones that we're following closely-- automation, things that are happening with the AI in the vehicle, drones-- there are also going to be some things we probably don't see coming.

The most important transportation technology of the last decade is arguably the smartphone. I caught part of your segment on the different apps. I was thinking about how I use the McDonald's app when I'm changing planes at O'Hare to quickly order something up while I'm in my layover. But of course, more significantly for transportation, led to the rise of things like Uber and Lyft and changed how we navigate our communities.

So we're trying to make sure that we're setting up for a future where you don't have to guess which technologies will win and lose, to know that certain things just have to be done. The tunnels, the bridges, the airports, things that we have needed to do for a long time, we're finally getting done, and we're going to be glad we did them no matter what the future throws at us.

JULIE HYMAN: That's a very good point on the apps. For me, Google Apps was the one that really transformed and thankfully usually it gets me where I need to go. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, thank you so much for your time this morning. Really appreciate it.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: You too. Thanks a lot.