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Pete Buttigieg touts infrastructure investment in Virginia

Pete Buttigieg in a blue suit holding a microphone speaks in front of a Virginia flag
Crixell Matthews
VPM News
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks at a 2020 campaign event in Arlington. Buttigieg recently spoke with VPM News about federal transportation grants coming to Virginia.

State and local governments are beginning to see grant money from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Earlier this month, VPM News reporter Ian Stewart interviewed U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to hear what Virginians can expect from some of the grant programs under the recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Funding from the BIL will cover a range of infrastructure fixes — including rebuilding bridges, widening highways, strengthening public transportation options and helping localities with their Vision Zero goals of reducing traffic fatalities by creating safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Ian Stewart: One of the programs under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law or BIL is the Rural Surface Transportation Grant. At its core, it’s supposed to expand roads in rural areas to help move people and goods quicker and safer. The Virginia Department of Transportation will use some of those funds to fix parts of I-64 in New Kent County — adding a third lane in each direction, widening the shoulders, and adding rumble strips.

The goal is to also reduce traffic accidents, which are at an all-time-high here. Can you tell me why projects like this are so important, despite concerns that many studies show that widening highways leads to more traffic, which in turn could lead to more accidents?

Secretary Pete Buttigieg: Well, we try to recognize that every situation, every project, every geography is a little bit different. One thing we do recognize as a department is you can't widen your way out of every problem. We've seen a lot of places where folks thought you could do that, added capacity and wound up just with more cars and more congestion.

On the other hand, there are some places where you clearly need more capacity in order to get people where they're going. And this is one where we saw a lot of safety concerns, and the Virginia DOT, made a very convincing application in a very competitive program, about why these funds were needed for I-64.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently reported nationwide that for most of 2022, traffic fatalities were kind of leveling off. But for Virginia and for cities like Richmond and even Washington, D.C., those numbers were actually higher. What’s the DOT doing to try and help get numbers down in places like these?

Buttigieg: This is something that we need to have, I think a fundamental change in mentality on as a country, the level of traffic deaths that we experience, is on par with the number of gun deaths that we experienced as a country about 40,000 a year. It's moved in the wrong direction over recent years, seems to be leveling off, but it needs to be dramatically reduced. And we need to imagine what it would take to work toward a goal of pushing that towards zero.

We released a national strategy about a year ago, we're partnering with everybody from safety advocates to cities and state DOTs on strategies that are going to help with that. That includes safer roads, safer vehicles, safer drivers', safer speeds, and work around the standard of post-crash care so that when there is a crash, and an injury, it doesn't necessarily turn into a fatality.

All of those things need to be in play. It's everything from how we make sure that cars are as safe as they can be, especially with new technology coming online, that has a lot of potential, but a lot of unanswered questions, and the way the roads themselves are designed.

The other thing I would point to this very important is that a big driver of these increases in roadway deaths have to do with what happens to what we call vulnerable road users. In other words, cyclists and pedestrians.

So, we're making sure that we pay attention not just to what happens inside the vehicle, it's not just the occupant of a vehicle in a crash. But anybody who comes into contact with a vehicle in a crash.

And again, this is part of how we think about everything from the safety standards for the cars themselves to the way that we set up roads and the way that we protect those vulnerable road users so that they're less likely to be in a collision in the first place.

There’s a big cycling community in Richmond, and the city has also adopted a Vision Zero plan. The surrounding counties also have their own cycling infrastructure plans. Many people ride bikes not only for exercise but also as a way to cut down on time in a car. However, now that less people are working from home and more drivers are on the road, what is the DOT doing to help keep biking infrastructure front and center?

Buttigieg: Well, we need to make sure that it is safe and convenient to get around on a bicycle, whether it's just recreational or whether it's part of your daily commute. And you know, parts of Virginia are very well set up for that I've personally benefited from terrific trails in the DMV area that that I've had a chance to ride on, but we got to really make this more the fabric of our planning, especially in places where anything from protected bike lanes and a heavily used area to just the right kind of signage and everything in between, can really make a big difference.

One thing we know is that when more people are on the on the road cycling you eventually hit a kind of a tipping point where drivers also become more aware and more responsible. And so we need to drive all of those things at once. And it is part of what we're funding. Our road under the law as passed by Congress, a lot of our road investments can and do include things like multi use paths, bike lanes, things that are going to make this safer and easier place to be a cyclist and make it less likely that cars and bicycles are going to be involved in crashes.

Speaking of crashes, speeding is one of the leading causes of road fatalities. Many of the people I’ve interviewed are fed up with speeding drivers and the deaths that result from it. But when they try to get help from local government or VDOT, they have to go through a ton of red tape and wait years for any infrastructure improvements, like roundabouts, stop signs or things like that. Is the DOT able to help with local level issues like these?

Buttigieg: Well, there are things we can do. And we will be releasing a round of grants under our safe streets for all program. But the truth is, a lot of this conversation is closer to home. We'll do what we can with the tools that we have federally, but a lot of this comes down to decisions around design, around signage, even around enforcement and sometimes culture that are made by city and county leaders and at the state level.

We’ll be pushing from our side. But people may have more influence than they realize with their own local leaders. And if you're concerned about safety and your neighborhood, your community would certainly encourage you to be active and involved in local decisions. Even the federal dollars coming out of this building are ultimately the majority of them are going to be subject to old state and local decisions about how they're used. And there's a once-in-a-lifetime chance to use them to make it safer for everybody, including when it comes to issues like speeding.

Also under the BIL is about $1 billion to help Virginia improve public transit across the state. Can you expand on what we will see from this funding?

Buttigieg: It's really everything from supporting transit agencies with some of their capital needs for their biggest projects to helping them run more efficiently and less expensively with fewer emissions.

For example, we're investing in a large number of purchases of zero emission buses around the country and a lot of transit authorities, not just your biggest city transit agencies, but in smaller communities. Who can really benefit obviously, there's climate benefit to an electric bus, for example, but also they can be cheaper to own and operate in the long run. And so that's part of why we're supporting these visions. Big transit improvements can take a long time to deliver.

I think we need to go in with the principle that transit should be a means of choice for getting around not just for people who can't or don't drive, but a good option for anybody. And I think the mark of a great transit system is being set up to where people can, you know, whether they have a car or not decide that transit is the best way to get to where they're going routinely.

That includes making sure that it is frequent, that it is reliable, that it both is and feels safe. And sometimes those are two different things. That is convenient. And if you add all those things up together, I think that word spreads, but we'll do what we can to better tell that story too.

Ian M. Stewart is the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.