AUSTIN (KXAN) — While nominee for U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg testified before a Senate Committee Thursday, many Austin leaders are closely following the confirmation process.
The former South Bend, Indiana mayor and presidential candidate was nominated by President Joe Biden to lead the new administration’s transportation efforts. Austin leaders say they believe local transit efforts stand to benefit from this new leadership, as both Buttigieg and the Biden administration are aware of Austin’s Project Connect high-capacity transit plan.
Project Connect, which was approved by Austin voters during a tax rate election in November, will bring new light rail, a downtown transit tunnel, more bus service and an all-electric bus fleet to Austin. It’s a significant undertaking with many of its changes expected to take nearly a decade to accomplish. The overall estimated capital investment expected for this project is $7.1 million with Capital Metro expecting around 45% of that to come from the federal government.
CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke told KXAN his team had actually sent a package of information about Project Connect to the Biden-Harris presidential transition team.
“So right out the gate they know what their program’s about, how it connects to their agenda, which aligns, really hand and glove [with Project Connect],” Clarke said.
“All the themes of Project Connect: building a more mobile city, to deal with our longstanding inequities, pledges to deal with climate change and a more sustainable city — all of those things line up really perfectly with what the Biden administration has not only been campaigning on, but has set as their agenda,” he added.
“And I think in a lot of ways, we may be the city in the country that aligns most with the Biden administration’s goals and objectives. We are cautiously optimistic that we have a great partner in the federal government to advance Project Connect and moving our city forward into the future.”Randy Clarke, CapMetro CEO
While Clarke feels confident about the CapMetro calculations that federal grants will cover 45% of Project Connect, he is hopeful there will be opportunities for the project to get even more support from the federal government than they had initially planned for.
But CapMetro isn’t the only source the Biden Administration’s new transportation leaders may be hearing about Project Connect from. Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who has been close friends with Buttigieg for years. Adler told KXAN Thursday he has talked to Buttigieg about Project Connect both before and after Buttigieg was nominated for Secretary of Transportation.
“I know that Secretary-designee Buttigieg is very familiar with Project Connect and the vote that we took in Austin, and I hope that we get the support from the Department of Transportaion to make that happen,” Adler said.
KXAN asked Adler if he would be interested in taking a job with the Department of Transportation if Buttigieg offered it to him, Adler replied right now, the work he wants to be focused on is addressing homelessness and Public Safety in Austin.
Adler said Austin leaders will be approaching the Department of Transportation to ask for support with Project Connect.
“Secretary-designee Buttigieg and the president have both spoken about the importance of having a really large infrastructure plan for the entire country, which I support because it seems to be the bipartisan issue that can be put into effect that also helps build an infrastructure with our country and helps us build jobs,” Adler commented. “I thoroughly expect that’s going to happen, and when it happens, I think that Austin should be ready to receive its fair share of that funding.”
Adler also noted he traveled in Europe with Buttigieg and a former U.S. Secretary of Transportation to look at different approaches to transportation “so I know that he is a proponent of alternative means of transportation.”
Buttigieg touched on his support for having a infrastructure for a variety of types of transportation during Thursday’s confirmation hearing.
“There are so many ways that people get around, and I think often we’ve had an auto-centric view that has forgotten historically about all of the other different modes,” Buttigieg noted. “We want to make sure anytime we are doing street design that it enables and cars and bicycles and pedestrians, and businesses and any other mode to coexist in a positive way and we should be putting funding behind that.”
Mario Champion, the chair of Austin’s Urban Transportation Commission, said he believes the voters’ approval of Project Connect (Prop A) in November along with another proposition (Prop B) which brings transit improvements across the city, shows the city of residents are ready to see transportation options that cater to more than just cars.
“Buttigieg has said he recognizes and Biden has said he recognizes we can’t build our way out of the scenarios we are in,” Champion noted. “So that is a hopeful hint for people like me, and I think most of the people on the commission that federal funding goes to things other than trying to make streets wider, faster.”
Champion added he is “absolutely” interested in seeing more federal dollars going towards Project Connect as well as projects that support a range of transportation modes like bikes, scooters, wheelchairs and buses.
A vote on whether to confirm Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary will head next to a vote by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Technology, followed by a vote on the Senate floor.