U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is optimistic a deal will be struck to advance Democratic President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan through Congress, paving the way for unprecedented infrastructure investment across the United States.
In an exclusive interview with The Times, the former South Bend mayor said the size of the infrastructure legislation, initially pegged at $2.3 trillion, could be finalized and approved in the not-too-distant future and immediately begin creating millions of American jobs.
"I'm convinced something big will happen," Buttigieg said. "Exactly what shape it's going to take, that's exactly what's in the middle of the sausage-making right now, and obviously the way Washington works that can have a lot of twists and turns."
"But I also think that story is going to play out, actually pretty quickly, over the coming days."
Biden's proposal calls for upgrading 20,000 miles of highways and roads, and repairing 10,000 bridges; funding drinking water, electric grid and broadband internet improvements; modernizing schools, child care centers, veterans hospitals and federal buildings; investing in manufacturing supply chains along with research and design; and boosting pay for home care workers.
Buttigieg said the American Jobs Plan also contains additional federal funding for passenger rail service, such as the South Shore commuter rail line linking Northwest Indiana to Chicago and extending east to Buttigieg's hometown of South Bend.
"If the American Jobs Plan passes we're talking about a dramatic increase in resources available to passenger rail across the country. Yes, that's things like Amtrak. But it's also intercity rail, and the South Shore is a great example of how important that is," Buttigieg said.
"Not only is it a lifeline that is important to maintain for residents in the Region. But the prospects of expanding it, or enhancing it, could dramatically improve the economic prospects of the different communities that are served."
Buttigieg said he knows from personal experience the frustration of having to explain to foreign visitors in South Bend that it'll take two hours or more to cover the 90 or so miles to Chicago by rail; a distance he said takes far less time in most foreign countries.
"That's a consequence of us deciding that it's OK to underinvest," Buttigieg said. "We can't just keep settling for less resources than people in lots of other countries take for granted."
He said the American Jobs Plan will remedy that and help alleviate the financial burden on states and local governments that have been doing what they can to maintain and expand rail service in the absence of strong federal support.
"Train operators, from NICTD to Amtrak, have done a heroic job with the dollars they've had access to," said Buttigieg, referring to the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District that operates the South Shore Line.
"And communities have been willing to step up, like we stepped up in St. Joe County and a lot of others, to deliver funding. But communities shouldn't have to be alone in doing this, and that's part of what we have a chance to do something about."
The national transportation chief was noncommittal on the possibility the federal government will put additional money toward the West Lake expansion of the South Shore Line set to break ground this fall, or the Double Track project aimed at reducing commutes to Chicago from Michigan City to about an hour.
But he said Biden's federal budget proposal will contain a passenger rail grant program aimed at improving the operations of commuter rail and similar services across the country.
"A lot of it could go to Amtrak. But it's not only for Amtrak, it's for anyone doing passenger rail. The South Shore would certainly be an example of that," Buttigieg said. "If I had my way, every good train in the country would be getting a boost."
"The whole idea is to make sure that we're getting more dollars out, so the great visions that local and regional leaders have can be delivered sooner than if we're not willing to make those investments."
Congressional Republicans, including Indiana U.S. Sens. Todd Young and Mike Braun, so far have balked at the broad scope of what Biden considers infrastructure. They do, however, seem to be on board with greater federal investment in roads, bridges and rail.
Buttigieg said he hopes the Hoosier senators ultimately will come to see the importance of the entire American Jobs Plan to the state of Indiana.
"I recognize there are a lot of different views, especially on how to pay for it. The president understands that. But we really need to get something done here," Buttigieg said. "This has tons of support from the American people."