President-elect Joe Biden has announced he will nominate Pete Buttigieg, former South Bend, Ind., mayor and contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, to be secretary of transportation.

If confirmed for the top Transportation Dept. post, Buttigieg would play an important role ito craft transportation elements, and likely others. of Biden’s $2-trillion infrastructure plan.

During Buttigieg’s unsuccessful run for the nomination earlier this year, he released a $1-trillion infrastructure proposal that included funds for various transportation and non-transportation sectors.

Multiple media outlets also reported Dec. 15 that Biden would nominate former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granhom (D) to lead the Dept. of Energy.

“Jobs, infrastructure, equity and climate all come together at the DOT, the site of some of our most ambitious plans to build back better," said Biden, In announcing the Buttigieg nomination on Dec. 15. “I trust Mayor Pete to lead this work with focus, decency and a bold vision—he will bring people together to get big things done.”

The following day, in formally introducing Buttigieg as his pick for DOT, Biden praised him as a "mayor from the heartland, a management expert and a policy wonk with a big heart."

The choice of Buttigieg took some observers by surprise, because he lacks extensive or deep experience with the full menu of issues connected with DOT, which is responsible for highways, transit, aviation, railroads and pipelines.

"Obviously, he is not a transportation person," says one industry source, who asked for anonymity. "It doesn't seem like he is the logical choice." But the official adds, "I'm really excited about [the selection] because it will make DOT very visible ... I'm sure he's going to be very aggressive in terms of advocating for an infrastructure bill."

$1-trillion plan

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said Buttigieg’s infrastructure proposal “not only focused on fixing our existing roads and bridges, but also investing in the national passenger rail network, boosting public transportation and investing in rural communities, all while putting an emphasis on 21st century needs, such as broadband internet and electric vehicle infrastructure.”

Industry officials also were impressed with Buttigieg’s performance at a candidates’ infrastructure forum in February. Jeff Urbanchuk, a spokesman for the American Council of Engineering Companies, said via email, “ ‘Mayor Pete’ demonstrated a deep understanding of infrastructure issues” at that event, which ACEC co-sponsored.

Tom Smith, executive director of the American Society of Civil Engineers—which also sponsored the forum—noted that Buttigieg was the first of the candidates to confirm he would attend. "He offered detailed, tangible plans for modernizing our nation's roads, bridges and water systems," Smith said

[View ENR 2/17/2020 story on forum here.]

Mayor's View

"As mayor, Buttigieg has seen first hand how transportation improvements can benefit communities and the infrastructure challenges the nation continues to face," Dave Bauer, American Road & Transportation Builders Association CEO, said.

Roger Millar, secretary of the Washington State Dept. of Transportation, told ENR that Buttigieg's mayoral background would be "invaluable" to U.S. DOT, adding that mayors "know better than anyone else how critical the first and last mile is to every trip to safely connect residents to the broader multimodal transportation system."

DeFazio noted that in South Bend, Buttigieg pushed to use "Complete Street" principles to increase road safety for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.

Despite obvious difference in scale between transportation issues faced by a city of about 102,000 and the nation, the presidential campaign elevated Buttigieg to a place on the national stage.

Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement that Buttigieg “understands the urgency and gravity of the climate crisis,” will ensure that transportation infrastructure is “resilient to climate change” and will help put transportation “on a path to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050.”

That benchmark is one Biden has embraced.

In the Dec. 16 nomination announcement event, held in Wilmington, Del., Buttigieg said, "America has given this administration a mandate to build back better, and step one in building back better, literally is to build."

He added, "Americans expect us to see to it that the idea of an "infrastructure week" is associated with results, and never again a media punch line."

Story updated on 12/17/2020 with further comments from Biden and comments from Buttigieg.