Mayo-Tary Pete Takes The Train to Saltillo, SXSW

Buttigieg tips his cap to Austin's massive mobility investments

Planning Commissioner Awais Azhar, who chairs the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee, talks to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on the train ride to Saltillo. (Photo by Mike Clark-Madison)

On Wednesday, March 16, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg – once and always Mayor Pete – joined his friend Mayor Steve (Adler), Austin's political A-listers, and a big SXSW crowd to talk about the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the future of mobility, and our city's massive investments in that future.

Buttigieg, who's still in town today (Thursday) for a sit-down at City Hall with staff and Council, began the day with a one-stop ride on the Capital MetroRail Red Line from MLK Station to Plaza Saltillo. Along the way, he got a rather choreographed bit of face time with leaders and invited guests from Cap Metro, the Austin Transit Partnership (the project-managing joint venture to build out Project Connect), the local minority chambers of commerce, and more, including Buttigieg's Secret Service detail, which numbered at least six, and a bunch of journalists held at bay by the same security). For the latter half of the 10 minutes or so on the train, that face time was skillfully commandeered by members of the Project Connect Community Advisory Committee, talking about how to make the $7.2 billion investment in transit (half our money, half Pete's, or so it is hoped) equitable for workers, small businesses who've been marginalized, and residents who may be displaced by rising housing costs along the PC transit corridors. (This last piece is where the advisory committee already has a voice, as the city spends the $300 million in anti-displacement funds included in the PC investment. It would like to secure a larger voice in the full project's buildout by the ATP.)

At Plaza Saltillo, which was built back in 1994 with a $600,000 federal grant, Buttigieg and Adler touted the much larger sums currently being invested in Austin mobility, even before the city gets whatever cash falls from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This includes not only Project Connect, but the $6 billion I-35 rebuild, the $4 billion expansion of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and the more than $1.5 billion in city mobility bonds passed since Adler took office in 2015, including the active transportation bond championed by Council Member Paige Ellis that passed alongside the Project Connect tax rate vote. "Delivering the golden age of mobility for this region," said Adler, "is a team- and community-wide effort."

Again, equity issues took center stage, as Cap Metro board chair and Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion and the Austin Area Urban League's Yasmine Smith, who leads People United for Mobility Action - the social-justice coalition focused on equitable transportation access - spoke to Austin's complicated mobility history where Black and brown communities are concerned, including right at Plaza Saltillo itself. This was just fine with Buttigieg, who amplified the message when he took the Saltillo mic: "What I see is a level of commitment and engagement among the voices that are at the table, including the voices who were excluded in the past, weighing in authentically and being empowered to ensure that everyone's interests are taken care of. I'm sure those conversations are not easy; I'm sure they often have the character of challenging family conversations. But the whole community is better off for them."

An hour later, many of the same folks were in the dark cool cavern of Ballroom D as Buttigieg flew solo on stage at what was billed as a town hall on the IIJA, which everyone still calls the "bipartisan infrastructure deal," in his official capacity as the man with (a little more than 50% of) that $1.2 trillion package. He briefly detailed DOT's commitment to safety, equity, creating good jobs, and climate action, then with no notes, no interviewer, and no idea what questions he'd be asked, dove enthusiastically, quickly and deeply into audience queries about recyclable heat-and-flood-mitigating pavement (which Mayor Pete linked to issues he'd dealt with in South Bend), sustainable aviation fuel, the role of roadside sensors in keeping bridges from falling down, and inevitably Elon Musk - more precisely, The Boring Company, which is closing in on a deal with San Antonio for a Tesla-tube shuttle between the airport and the Riverwalk.(He also got some coordinated activist questions seeking his help in blocking major oil and gas transfer facilities on the Texas coast.)

Many who are still hanging in on Day 6 of SXSW to follow its transportation track are experts themselves, and a couple of times - particularly on specific technologies - Buttigieg had to admit his limitations. But for a man whose 2020 presidential campaign was criticized for being long on identity-driven charm and short on specifics, it was a pretty impressive show of mastery of his multivariate portfolio. This includes issues that his giant agency does not actually handle, like land use: "Not only do we have to cut [carbon] emissions on our roads with electric vehicles, but we need to make it so you don't have to drag two tons of metal with you everywhere to get where you need to go."

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SXSW 2022, SXSW Interactive 2022, Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Department of Transportation, Steve Adler, Capital Metro, Jeff Travillion, MetroRail Red Line, Yasmine Smith, People United for Mobility Action, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, bipartisan infrastructure, Plaza Saltillo

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