Pete Buttigieg

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg (right) was the opening speaker at the Texas Tribune Festival on Sept. 22, 2022.

AUSTIN — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg encouraged Texas leaders to take advantage of federal infrastructure funding, despite state Republican warnings.

Buttigieg was the opening speaker for the Texas Tribune Festival, often dubbed TribFest, on Thursday. The political event held in downtown Austin each year brings together hundreds of speakers including politicians, pundits, journalists and more to discuss Texas politics and policy.

Buttigieg touted the $1 trillion federal, bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year that could send about $36 billion to the Lone Star State, if the state is willing to accept it.

“One of the features that was written into this was if the state decides not to apply, then instead of penalizing people who live in that state for their leaders’ choices, it'll just revert to communities’ mayors,” Buttigieg said.

When the law passed, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to state agency leaders warning them that the federal money could have strings attached and they should not take any funding before a careful review.

"As you and your staff begin to review the IIJA, and as you review each federal funding agreement or contract associated with the programs you administer, please consider all of the requirements, particularly new ones, and carefully assess their implications," the letter warned. "Should the acceptance of any federal funds hinder or needlessly constrain the state, commit the state to ongoing costs for which there is not an appropriation available, or require an agency to implement a federal policy contrary to the law or policy of this state, the agreement proposed by the federal agency should not be signed.”

Federal leaders argued that if one state decides not to take the funding, it only means that another state will, improving their infrastructure and standard of living.

Buttigieg said there is nothing to fear when it comes to accepting the federal dollars, “unless you're planning on breaking a federal law,” he quipped. While there is an in-depth review process before funding is awarded — such as making sure the project does not illegally discriminate against a community — Buttigieg said he believes the benefits outweigh any negatives.

“I think part of being conservative is that you wouldn't want the federal government to be in the business of writing blank checks, so of course, we have a lot of expectations around federal taxpayer money — eligibility, compliance, auditing, all kinds of things, but I don't think it's a reason not to do it,” he said. “I think that's a reason to be proud when you successfully receive federal funds.”

Other aspects of the law include funding for highway programs, public transportation, drinking water infrastructure, airports, bridge replacement and repairs, broadband expansion and more.

Electric vehicles

Buttigieg also made a case for electric vehicle investments that are part of the law. This includes $408 million to expand the vehicle charging network.

While some have argued that Texas — an oil and gas state — would suffer from the expansion of electric vehicles, Buttigieg said embracing EVs would only save Texans money, especially as a large state with wide open roads that lead people to spend even more time in their cars.

“Some of the best-use cases for electric vehicles are in places like Texas,” Buttigieg said. “Places where people spend more time in their vehicles, where you drive longer distances than in a dense coastal city, therefore spend more money on gas and therefore would save more money.”

Buttigieg said he is also hopeful about what the law could mean for better public transportation in the state. The funding dedicates $3.3 billion for public transportation in Texas.

“We are car people as a country. Cars will always play an important role in our lives, but you should not have to bring two tons of metal with you everywhere you're going,” he said.

Political future

While Buttigieg dodged questions about a potential 2024 presidential run, stating that he hopes to continue to serve under President Joe Biden as long as he is in office, he criticized Texas state and congressional leaders.

Buttigieg criticized Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, as well as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, for their current strategy of busing and flying migrants who enter through the U.S.-Mexico border to other northern liberal cities. Abbott launched the program in April in response to what he says is lack of federal support to handle the millions of migrants entering the country illegally. Earlier this week, it was reported that more than 2 million migrants have been apprehended at the border this year.

Since the launch of the program, Texas has sent more than 11,000 migrants to Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago. Florida joined by funding a plane to send San Antonio migrants to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts this week.

“It’s not helpful,” Buttigieg said. “I don't mean to clip about that. What I'm saying is, obviously there are issues with border migration. But these are the kinds of stunts you see from people who don't have a solution.”

He added: “It’s not just ineffectual, it is hurting people in order to get attention.”

Buttigieg, the first openly gay person to be confirmed to the U.S. cabinet, also criticized Abbott and state Republican leaders for what he said were anti-LGBTQ-plus stances. He condemned Texas’ two U.S. senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, who have said they will not support the federal codification of same-sex marriage, a law that would directly impact Buttigieg who has been married to Chasten Buttigieg since 2018.

“I have met both (of) your senators and your governor. I don't know their spouses. I don't really think about their marriages, (but) I cannot imagine a situation where I would attempt to undo one of their marriages,” he said.

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