Pete Buttigieg, President Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, for the most part breezed through his Senate confirmation hearing fielding questions on a range of topics, with infrastructure a central focus, including such bedrock construction issues as how to fix the ailing Highway Trust Fund and accelerate federal project approvals.
in fact, just after the Jan. 21 hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the panel’s top Republican, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, ended any doubts about Buttigieg’s chances by saying, “I’m quite certain he will be confirmed.”
The one bobble came after the hearing when, according to multiple published reports, a Buttigieg spokesperson pulled back a Buttigieg comment that appeared to leave the door open a bit for considering an increase the federal gas tax, as a way to help the Highway Trust Fund.
[View Buttigieg's prepared opening statement here and a stream of the Senate committee hearing here.]
Lawmakers spent more than two hours quizzing Buttigieg, a former South Bend, Ind., mayor and unsuccessful presidential candidate. Several committee members asked the nominee about how he would propose to raise the revenue needed to solidify the financially struggling trust fund.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) pressed Buttigieg to say he favors increasing the federal gasoline tax. But Buttigieg said. “I think all options need to be on the table.”
Buttigieg showed a solid grasp of detailed highway background factors. He noted that one of the reasons for the trust fund's woes is that the gas tax hasn’t been increased since 1993, is not indexed for inflation and has stayed afloat through substantial transfers from the general fund.
He did say that one option in the short- to medium-term "could include revisiting the gas tax," such as "adjusting it and/or connecting it to inflation." But according to multiple reports, a Buttigieg spokesperson said after the hearing that raising the gas tax is not an option.
Buttigieg said that general-fund transfers to the trust fund "could continue if there's appetite for it."
The nominee added, “In the near term, we need a solution that can provide some predictability and sustainability. In the long term, we need to bear in mind also that as vehicles become more efficient and as we pursue electrification, sooner or later there will be questions about whether the gas tax can be effective at all.”
A vehicle-miles-traveled fee also has been discussed. "But," he added, "that raises, of course, concerns about privacy, and there remain some technological questions, too."
But he also said addressing the trust fund revenue problem would require discussions between the administration and Congress.
He said that there is “a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure" and praised Biden's as-yet-unreleased infrastructure framework, adding that it would create "millions of good-paying jobs, revitalizing communities that have been left behind...."
Biden has said he plans to unveil his Build Back Better infrastructure plan in an appearance before both houses of Congress in February.
Among other construction-related topics, Buttigieg said he supports major investments in DOT's discretionary grant programs, namely BUILD (formerly TIGER) and INFRA grants, which he views as a key way to deliver funding to projects.
Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) probed Buttigieg's views on expediting federal environmental reviews. Construction industry officials and other critics have contended that the federal project-approval process is much too slow.
Buttigieg said, "I think we should take every opportunity to make sure that these [review] processes are efficient and as much as is possibly doable—consistent, of course, with those safety and environmental goals—that they are speedy, that they're not duplicative."
As is common at confirmation hearings, some senators sought support for projects in their areas. Sen. Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) brought up Corridor H, an important highway project in her state. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) raised the issue of the Gateway program, in particular, a new tunnel under the Hudson River between New Jersey and New York, a Connecticut neighbor.
Two Republican senators—Ted Cruz (Texas) and Sullivan (Alaska)—brought up Biden's recent decision to cancel the federal approval for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, though that decision lies outside of DOT's jurisdiction. Both blasted the president's action for putting thousands of union workers out of work.
Buttigieg responded, "The important thing is to make sure that we make good on the promise of the president's climate vision as being one that, on net, creates far more jobs—millions, we hope."
Story updated on 1/22/2021 with reported post-hearing comment by Buttigieg spokesperson on the gas tax.