Pete Buttigieg: ‘No question’ future of auto industry is electric

Buttigieg says the Biden administration is focused on a “Made in America” EV revolution.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, accompanied by President Joe Biden, speaks about supply chain issues in the Indian Treaty Room on the White House complex in Washington, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, accompanied by President Joe Biden, speaks about supply chain issues in the Indian Treaty Room on the White House complex in Washington, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023.

President Joe Biden’s administration is trying to showcase the impact of their economic agenda, including the two-year old infrastructure law that provides federal funds to improve everything from ports to railroads.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who relocated to Traverse City with his family in 2022, made the administration’s case this week in Monroe and East Lansing.

Buttigieg says the president wants to improve supply chains across the nation.

Listen: U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks auto industry, railway safety and more

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Pete Buttigieg: I was at a facility in Monroe. We’re helping them expand their capabilities with $11 million as they move things along the Great Lakes like iron ore and bulk grain that are a vital part of our supply chains. It’s part of what we mean when we talk about what U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called a new modern supply side economics. When you get that right, it’s part of the fight against inflation, lowering shipping costs and keeping the cost of living down for Americans.

Quinn Klinefelter, WDET News: The president has pushed to try to create domestic-based supply chains for electric vehicles in particular. General Motors, for one, has pledged to have an all-electric fleet in a relatively short period of time, in part by banking on that kind of supply chain. Consumers, however, still seem to be hedging on buying electric vehicles amid lingering concerns over the cost and whether they can travel a decent distance without running out of a charge. In light of what supply chains have already been built, how far there still is to go and whether or not there will be enough domestic partners to make it happen, what would you say to those people who still have concerns about buying an electric vehicle?

There’s no question that the future of the automotive industry is electric. We see the superiority of that technology in terms of performance, not just in terms of climate. The big question is, how quickly will it happen and will it be made in America? Our administration is very focused on making sure that the cost of EVs continues to come down, that the chargers are there when you need them, and that this is an industry that is centered in America. I think the Trump administration allowed China to build a real advantage with regard to electric vehicles. We got to make sure that America leads the way because this will be just as important for auto jobs in the 21st century as the older technologies were for auto jobs in the 20th century.

“Trapping Americans in old technologies is a recipe for the auto industry in the U.S. to fail.” – U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg

You mentioned former President Trump. He was touting to auto workers here not too long ago that the push for EVs is going to cost them their jobs. And it’s all going to just benefit China.

Look, clinging or worse, trapping Americans in old technologies is a recipe for the auto industry in the U.S. to fail. You can’t move us back into the past. And pretending otherwise, we’ll destroy American jobs. We’re not pretending otherwise, we’re doing the reverse. This EV revolution — which, to be very clear, is happening with or without us — we’re working to make sure that it’s a “Made in America” EV revolution. And we’re seeing investments across the country, including in my old hometown of South Bend, Indiana, where the Studebaker car company stopped producing cars in 1963. We have the biggest investment since those days underway there right now, for an EV-related facility that’s being built. So we’re seeing the jobs be created. And we’re working to make sure that America builds and retains an advantage in what is clearly going to be the automotive technology of our time.

When you talk about safety and some of the infrastructure projects that you were mentioning to begin with, one way that came together here recently had been in terms of rail safety. Especially the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the toxic waste that was transported from that area to other places, including in Michigan. The EPA says the railroad didn’t do anything wrong, they followed the rules. But there’s still a bunch of consternation among a lot of officials here about not being informed beforehand that the waste was coming here. Is there anything the transportation department can do to either limit such derailments or dictate where or how far such toxic material is transported?

What happened in East Palestine woke up so many Americans to the realities of railroad safety and how long away we have to go as a country. And right now, even as we approach the one-year mark since that derailment in Ohio, Congress still has not acted on the Railway Safety Act. We’re calling on them to do that. Don’t get me wrong, we’re doing everything we can with the authority, tools and funding that we already have. Everything from improving the physical infrastructure of our railways to enforcement actions that make sure that hazardous materials move more safely.

But with that Railway Safety Act that is still waiting for action, we could do much more. And so we’re urging everybody, especially those members of Congress who were quick to get on television in the wake of East Palestine, to put their money where their mouth is and work with us to get that Railway Safety Act done. This is also one of the things that’s at stake in the budget conversations that are taking place. I was concerned that the House Republican budget cuts funding for one of our flagship programs that we use to make railroad infrastructure safer. I believe this is a time when we should be doing more and not less to invest in the strength and the safety of our freight railroads in this country.

In terms of the House Republican budget, we finished what by many accounts was the busiest air travel day in U.S. history over the Thanksgiving weekend. And there’s been a shortage of air traffic controllers for a while. The House GOP leadership’s budget cuts funding for the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs those controllers. Do you see any kind of room to reach an accommodation with Republicans on the overall funding issue? Or is it just gonna lie there in the heap of partisan politics?

I think this can and should be a bipartisan issue. I’ve spoken to a lot of members on both sides of the aisle who want to get big things done, including our goal of increasing the number of air traffic controllers that we hire and train and getting them the technology that they need. But here again, I am concerned looking at the budget that the House Republicans put forward. It’s about $500 million short of what the president has requested for the next fiscal year. So we really need them to decide whether they’re going to talk about these issues in partisan terms and vote in partisan terms or work with us to get the funding that we need in order to make sure we hire, recruit, train, retain, and pay those air traffic controllers that we need — and get them the equipment and the modern technology that it takes to do their job.

We don’t take for granted for one minute the extraordinary fact that 16 million flights a year operate safely in the United States of America. Air travel hit a peak, as you mentioned, an all-time record high in U.S. history…with Thanksgiving travel and we think there’s more where that came from. We gotta be doing more, not less, when it comes to supporting the backbone of our aviation system, which is our air traffic control.

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  • Quinn Klinefelter
    Quinn Klinefelter is a Senior News Editor at 101.9 WDET. In 1996, he was literally on top of the news when he interviewed then-Senator Bob Dole about his presidential campaign and stepped on his feet.