AUSTIN (KXAN) — A day after the indictment of former President Donald Trump, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discussed his thoughts briefly on that legal development as well as talked about Austin’s efforts to expand its public transit system.
During an interview Friday with KXAN, Buttigieg shared his reaction to Trump becoming the first ex-president in the country’s history to face criminal charges. The exact charges included in the indictment will remain unclear, though, until the former president appears in court for the first time. His arraignment will likely happen on Tuesday, according to sources.
“Personally, I have the same reaction, I think, as all Americans, but this is a local law enforcement matter, not something the administration is involved with,” Buttigieg said Friday. “So we’re watching it like everybody else in the country.”
Buttigieg sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 to challenge Trump. President Biden ultimately nominated the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana to lead the U.S. Department of Transportation, a role he’s now held since 2021.
Another development came Friday related to a disaster that Buttigieg responded to recently. The Justice Department announced it’s suing Norfolk Southern Railway Company for environmental damage caused by the massive train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. Federal prosecutors are asking for fines under the Clean Water Act and for a judgment to hold the railroad accountable for past and future costs.
Last week Buttigieg told a Senate panel that his agency is reviewing its definition of a high-hazard flammable train in the wake of the Ohio crash. He addressed Texans’ concerns Friday about what the federal government is doing to avoid a similar situation from happening where they live. The secretary said he is pushing lawmakers to pass more accountability measures as well as enforce what tools are available right now.
“We’re urging Congress to pass legislation that would allow us, for example, to assess fines that are actually going to make a difference for these multibillion-dollar railroad companies when they get caught in safety violations. We’re also calling for tougher standards around the physical safety of hazardous material transportation,” he said. “I think now is a moment where everybody in Congress needs to show whether they’re serious. Many, to their credit, both from the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle, have come together in the Senate to propose legislation. The sooner that it gets passed, the sooner the president could sign it, and we could go to work enforcing it. In the meantime, we’re not wasting any time here at the Department of Transportation, stepping up inspections, audits, everything we can do to keep freight railroads safe in this country.”
Buttigieg touted financial support Friday that the federal government already provided to help get Project Connect, the massive public transit project approved by Austin’s voters in 2020, off the ground. He mentioned the $20 million awarded to help purchase buses for the expansion of rapid service.
“Austin is in a position that a lot of cities would like to be in in terms of all the growth, but with that growth, you’ve had a lot of congestion,” he said. “That’s why that vision for expanding transit is so important. It’s going to benefit people who have a chance to use it. It’ll even benefit people who don’t use it because if you are still on the road, there’ll be less people to compete with if others are using transit. It’s good for the economy. It’s good for the environment, and while it can be challenging because it’s such a big project to get underway, we believe that there is enormous potential here, and we’re pleased to be involved in some of these efforts.”
The Austin Transit Partnership, the organization created to oversee Project Connect, recently unveiled five scaled-down designs for the proposed light rail system. Organizers paused for several months to rethink their plans after citing rising construction costs and increased real estate valuations. Now, they have whittled down the system to five scope options, which primarily include street-level light rail services with operations extending from north Central Austin down through the southeast.
Those wanting to review the light rail options can find them online. To give feedback, you can upload them online, email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail them physically to ATP at 203 Colorado St., Austin.
Electric vehicle charger availability
Earlier this month, the federal government announced new grants totaling $2.5 billion for the construction of electric vehicle charging stations and alternative fueling infrastructure, aiming in part at increasing access in underserved neighborhoods and communities. The grants are established by the Bipartisan Instructure Law, which Congress passed in November 2021. They come under the umbrella of President Biden’s goal of establishing 500,000 public EV charging stations and reducing national greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by the year 2030.
KXAN previously reported about the lack of availability for electric vehicle chargers among Austin’s suburbs and the rural areas, so much so that they could be considered “deserts.” Leaders at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told us they’re set to restart a $12 million incentive program. This will, in part, pay for up to 50% of the cost of new chargers, and they’re specifically targeting these EV charging deserts in the application process.
Buttigieg pointed out the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill has dedicated $7.5 billion to build the country’s first nationwide network of electric vehicle chargers. Over the next five years, Texas will receive $408 million to strengthen its own network.
He added the intent is to make charging infrastructure as readily available as a gas station is to drivers on a road trip.
“I will say that rural Americans are among those who stand to benefit the most from electric vehicles because, of course, rural drivers tend to drive the most distances in their daily routines. That means you’re spending the most money on gas and diesel right now,” Buttigieg said. “We’ll save more because charging a car is cheaper than filling up a car with gas or a truck with diesel. That’s why we’ve fought to get the sticker price of electric vehicles down, which the Inflation Reduction Act does. I would also point to the fact that rural Americans are more likely to live in single-family homes, where you can just charge a car with a plug in your wall, so if we have that piece, at least for those who have single-family homes, then it really does come back to the highway network, making sure we have those chargers out on the road if you’re traveling long distances. That’s exactly what we’re doing: funding the states to put those chargers where they need to be.”