SPRINGFIELD, Ore. — Oregon took center stage this week in President Biden's effort to pass a sweeping infrastructure package to overhaul the nation's aging transportation system, create millions of jobs, address climate change, and strengthen the nation's social safety net.
Two separate infrastructure proposals are entering a critical time in Congress. The first is a bipartisan deal that includes physical infrastructure like roads, bridges, railways, and airports. The second, which only has Democratic support, is estimated at $3.5 trillion and would expand social programs, in what the president calls "human infrastructure."
Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg visited Eugene, Springfield, and Corvallis this week to highlight how the president's vision would improve traffic safety, make historic investments to help cut carbon pollution and make everyday Americans' lives better.
Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana and a 2020 presidential candidate was a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk.
"Thinking really about what the next 50 or 100 years should look like in a country that is still relying on infrastructure that was often built 50 or 100 years ago... Otherwise, we are never going to be able to win the future," he said.
Buttigieg and Rep. DeFazio highlight traffic safety and cutting carbon pollution
Buttigieg came to Oregon at the invitation of Oregon fourth district Congressman Peter DeFazio, who is also the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. They visited a dangerous intersection in Corvallis and highlighted the need for safety improvements for all road users, including pedestrians, and cyclists.
In Springfield, they toured the Lane County Transit District's first zero-emission buses that will replace diesel buses. DeFazio and Buttigieg also got a quick driving lesson and took a turn driving one of the electric buses.
The bipartisan infrastructure deal the president and Democratic leaders struck with Republicans includes $7.5 billion for electric buses and transit. And another $7.5 billion for the largest investment in EV infrastructure in history. The funds would build a national network of 500,000 chargers along highways and in rural and disadvantaged communities.
Fighting climate change
Buttigieg said the infrastructure bills would make a huge difference in addressing climate change.
"I know we are talking about it as a transportation or infrastructure bill rather than a climate bill. But the reality is transportation is the single biggest contributor of greenhouse gasses in the American economy," Buttigieg said. "We know it has to be the single biggest part of the solution."
Buttigieg pointed to the unprecedented and deadly heat wave that hit the Northwest in late June as an example of the critical need to take action now.
"These are the kind of extreme effects that we used to think might happen in the middle of the 21st century if we didn't act. Instead they're happening right now. It shows the urgency of this issue. Also why we need to invest in resilience," he said.
Infrastructure resilience is aimed at reducing the magnitude and duration of disruptive events like the recent extreme heat wave. Buttigieg said no matter what the U.S. does to fight climate change, it's already here, and the nation needs to make its infrastructure more resilient to a changing climate.
"There are measures we've got to take so we don't have roads getting washed out, or transportation infrastructure literally getting fried, or melting—like what was at risk of happening in Portland. They had to shut down transit because it was literally too hot to function. And there are examples of this in different forms in every part of the country," he said.
'It was an extraordinary thing in today's Washington'
Buttigieg said the Biden team is thrilled with the bipartisan deal the president struck with Republicans. The proposal isn't written yet but could come up for a vote as early as next week. There are still disagreements over exactly how to pay for it, and details about water infrastructure and broadband provisions are still being ironed out.
"The bottom line is we have bipartisan agreement on a vision that would represent the biggest investment in roads and bridges since the Eisenhower era, the biggest investment in public transit that we have ever had as a country at the federal level," said Buttigieg.
He said the proposal would do more for passenger rail since Amtrak was created. In addition, it would provide funding to replace the nation's lead pipes, reducing lead exposure to hundreds of thousands of schools and childcare facilities.
"We are thrilled, and even more thrilled in a time when this is so rare, having Republicans and Democrats working together on something. There are clearly other areas where we are not going to agree, but on this we think we can get it done," he said.
What about the I-5 bridge?
The bipartisan proposal includes $109 billion for upgrades to roads and bridges and other major infrastructure projects. Buttigieg said the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River connecting Oregon and Washington is an example of a piece of major infrastructure that a whole region depends on economically, and has been allowed to deteriorate over time. The President's infrastructure and jobs proposal promised to fix the nation's ten most "economically significant" bridges in need of reconstruction and repair. Buttigieg said he couldn't say whether the bridge would be one of the ten.
"We didn't build the package on a project by project level, but it certainly is the kind of thing we have in mind when we talk about repairing and improving America's aging infrastructure," he said.
Human infrastructure proposal
Earlier this week, Senate Democrats agreed on a $3.5 trillion dollar deal for President Biden's human infrastructure proposal. The plan would include expanded Medicare coverage, universal pre-kindergarten, free community college, paid family and medical leave, and extended child tax credits. There are also several environmental initiatives.
The proposal so far has no Republican support in the Senate, and Democrats hope to pass the legislation through a process called reconciliation which would allow them to pass it with a simple majority. Buttigieg said he's not giving up on getting some Republican support.
"If you look across America, last time I checked, more than two-thirds of Republicans said we ought to do these kinds of investments in the care economy. The idea of paid family leave is something that the vast majority of Americans, Democrats, Independents, and Republicans think we ought to do. We are one of the very few countries in the world—rich, poor, or otherwise—that don't," he said.
How to pay for it
Republicans are opposed to the president's proposed method of paying for his American Jobs Plan by hiking the corporate tax from 21% to 28%. Senate Republicans have said it would weaken President Trump's 2017 tax cuts and hurt the economy. Buttigieg disagreed and said the corporate tax rate is lower now than it's been during most of his lifetime.
He said the president is flexible on how to pay for his infrastructure vision, but emphasized he plans to keep his promise that Americans who make less than $400,000 a year won't see any new taxes.
"Especially because you don't have to, to fund this vision. The truth is we can do this in a way that doesn't add to the deficit and doesn't hit most Americans, just by getting corporations and the wealthy to pay their fair share. That's how much has been taken off the table in this period of exploding inequality."
The price tag for both the bipartisan infrastructure plan and the Democrats' human infrastructure deal adds up to over $4 trillion. Buttigieg defended the steep cost and said the nation can't afford not to invest in its future. He said Americans are already paying the cost now for inferior infrastructure.
"We are not even in the top ten anymore. We are 13th and falling. Americans pay an invisible 'pot hole tax,' I call it, every day, just from the damage that's happening to cars from having roads be in bad shape," he said.
He said the US won't have a competitive economy unless it has first rate infrastructure.
"And for the richest country in the world to be asking itself, 'can we afford to have decent roads, or can we afford to have decent child care?' just doesn't make any sense. Of course we can afford it," Buttigieg said.
Praise for DeFazio
Buttigieg said he was thrilled to be in Oregon where there are so many forward thinking leaders and he had high praise for Rep. Peter DeFazio.
"A real secret weapon for this state is Chair Peter DeFazio, who is chairing the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The U.S. House just passed his INVEST bill which is a sweeping vision for the future of transportation for this country, and I am very glad I took up his invitation to come out here, because it's just a wonderful place to visit," Buttigieg said.
Looking ahead to 2024
Buttigieg, fondly known by many as "Mayor Pete" for his two terms as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, was also a Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential race. When asked if he'd consider running again in 2024, he was quick to express support for his boss.
"I'm looking forward to supporting President Biden and so honored to be part of his team," he said.
Also on Straight Talk: Looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympics
Pacific University political science professor and Olympics expert Jules Boykoff was also a guest on this week's episode of Straight Talk. Boykoff discussed the politics leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, athlete activism, and Northwest athletes to watch.
The Tokyo Olympics begin next week with the opening ceremony on Friday, July 23rd and end with the closing ceremony on Sunday, August 8th.
Straight Talk airs Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 6:30 p.m., and Monday at 4:30 a.m. Straight Talk is also available as a podcast.