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Confirmation hearings can be contentious, but Thursday's hearing to confirm Pete Buttigieg as the nation's first open LGBTQ cabinet member seemed more like a gathering of old friends. But Buttigieg was clear: transportation can play a leading role in bringing the country back.

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg stressed the important role transportation will play with safety and jobs in the coronavirus pandemic recovery during nearly three hours of testimony before a Senate committee considering his nomination for secretary of transportation.

Emphasizing that safety for both travelers and workers will be his and the department’s shared mission, the 39-year-old former presidential candidate was cordial and relaxed while testifying before a bipartisan senate panel deciding his future, telling members he looked forward to working closely with Congress.

“We need to build our economy back better than ever, and the Department of Transportation can play a central role in this, by implementing President Biden’s infrastructure vision. By creating millions of good paying jobs revitalizing communities that have been left behind, enabling American small businesses workers, families and farmers to compete and win in the global economy, and tackling the climate crisis,” Buttigieg said.

Although the confirmation hearing was delayed and taking place the day after President Joe Biden assumed the helm of the United States without a single confirmed cabinet member, Buttigieg, accompanied by his husband Chasten Buttigieg, has been in talks and meetings with individual members of the committee prior to today and it showed as each member either present or remotely took turns asking questions and referencing earlier conversations they’d had.

Stressing the importance of improving the infrastructure to keep people safe and improve the country’s economy, Buttigieg said now is the time to deliver for the American people.

“Safety is the foundation of the department’s mission. And that takes on new meaning, amid this pandemic. We have to ensure that all of our transportation systems, our aviation and public transit, our railways, roads, ports, our waterways and pipelines. All of it is managed safely in this critical period, as we work to defeat the virus for good,” Buttigieg said.

Referring to his time as mayor of South Bend, a city he said was built by the power of transportation and classified nationally as a dying city, Buttigieg said he helped bring South Bend out of the great recession of infrastructure to thrive economically, enjoy enhancements to their intercity train system and add an international airport.

“This is a very critical time for our nation’s transportation systems, and we believe Mr. Buttigieg’s experience and sound judgement gives him a unique ability to revamp U.S. transportation policy and oversee the largest and most complex aviation system in the world with the insight to tackle the challenging problems facing the industry,” Captain Joe DePete, president of the Airline Pilots Association International (ALPA) representing 60,000 commercial pilots wrote in a letter endorsing Buttigieg’s nomination to the committee on Wednesday.

“We are confident of Mr. Buttigieg’s commitment and capability to build back our transportation system to promote U.S. jobs, enhance safety and security, and sustainably advance mobility. Further, given Mr. Buttigieg’s public policy acumen and keen attention to international affairs, we believe he is well positioned to regain the U.S.’s global leadership in aviation,” DePete said asking the senators to expedite the confirmation hearings because there is a lot of work to be done to bring aviation back to pre-pandemic levels.

Senator Ed Markey asked Buttigieg about the mask initiative the Biden administration announced on Wednesday for rail and air passengers. Markey said it was important to protect flight attendants and anyone working in those industries and the importance of convening a joint security task force with aviation and public health experts to provide across the board policies during the pandemic.

“We are prepared to make sure that we use all relevant authorities to enforce the President’s executive order to ensure that across every mode of transportation. Workers, passengers, commuters are protected,” Buttigieg replied. “I welcome your push to make sure that we’re thinking across different sectors departments with a that whole of government approach. Often these things are siloed but obviously, in order to deal with the challenge this big, we need to be partnering across every division of authority in government to make sure everybody in their lane is doing their part.”

Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth pressed Buttigieg on his commitment to accessibility for all saying the transportation community has failed the disabled community from Amtrak squandering time afforded it by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to airlines making travel more difficult for people who require service animals to transit systems often failing to keep elevators working, Duckworth said the disabled community has been left stranded far too often and for far too long. Adding that an act of Congress shouldn’t be needed to for airlines to take care of passenger wheelchairs properly.

“So I’m eager to work with you on this it’s so important that our transit transportation resources are accessible,” Buttigieg said adding he’d be open to having a dedicated advisor on his senior leadership team with experience and expertise on accessibility and universal design as Duckworth suggested.

In a generally cordial meeting, Buttigieg was at times questioned by senators about roadways, rails, greenhouse gases and President’s Biden’s executive order stopping work on the Keystone Pipeline affecting thousands of building trade union workers.

“The president of course has kept the promise that he made to voters, when it’s come to climate. I believe that the President’s climate vision will create more jobs on that, and I think it’s going to be very important to work with him and work with Congress to make sure that we can deliver on that promise, that more good paying union jobs will be created in the context of the climate and infrastructure work that we have before us than has been impacted by other decisions,” Buttigieg said.

Ending the hearing with light banter about Buttigieg’s qualifications to run for president, his birthday earlier this week and his appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the committee chairman, GOP Senator Roger Wicker, advised senators they have until the end of day to submit questions for Buttigieg  and he has until January 26 to submit his answers to questions from the committee members.


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Tags: air travel, airline, airlines + transport, Department of Transportation

Photo credit: Pete Buttigieg (seen here in an earlier photo) laid out his vision for the nation's transportation infrastructure during a hearing on Thursday before Senate committee considering his nomination as U.S. Transportation Secretary. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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