SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — When it comes to the nomination of the next U.S. secretary of transportation, some U.S. trucking groups have shifted to neutral, idling to see what happens after President Joe Biden gets down to business.
“There was a lot of campaign rhetoric. Now we’re going to see reality. What are they really going to do?” said Don Schaefer, executive vice president of Mid-West Truckers Association, headquartered in Springfield.
In Grain Valley, Missouri, at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association headquarters, Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the OOIDA, said his group is taking the same approach.
“We are anxious to see where the rubber really meets the road,” Pugh said.
Biden announced in December that he will nominate Pete Buttigieg, who campaigned against him for the Democratic presidential nomination, as the nation’s next transportation secretary. From 2012 to 2020, Buttigieg served as the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
“He’s not a D.C. insider, so I think that’s a good thing. That’s a fresh change of pace,” Pugh said.
Schaefer said that while Buttigieg’s years as the mayor of South Bend, with a population of around 102,000 and the city that is the home to the University of Notre Dame, mean he has experience dealing with infrastructure issues, it remains to be seen what that translates to in the nation’s top transportation job.
“Buttigieg, as a candidate, really did lay out an infrastructure plan during his own campaign. Here’s a guy who’s had to deal with infrastructure issues as a local government official. He did put out a plan, and it was like a trillion-dollar plan,” Schaefer said.
Buttigieg, during the campaign for the Democratic nomination, unveiled his $1 trillion national infrastructure plan in January 2020.
Schaefer said he’s hopeful for a push on national infrastructure, but cautious on what that might be — and how it might be funded.
“Buttigieg talked about it because he was a mayor, he was a government official and infrastructure is always big, potholes, bridges, sewers, that kind of stuff. But it’s going to have more of a — it’s going to have a Biden stand to it. That means there’s going to be a bigger push on transit, probably at the expense of roads and bridges. We don’t know, but we do know they are going to talk about things like we’ve got to fix sewer systems, we’ve got to make sure we get water to everybody who needs it and that kind of stuff. The big question is, where are they going to get the money for all of these infrastructure plans?” said Schaefer, adding that ideas like a vehicle mile tax or a raid on the nation’s highway trust fund would not find a receptive audience among his membership.
It’s for the funding reason that Mike Matousek, manager of governmental affairs at OOIDA, is keeping his eyes on a couple of other positions within the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“I think the Federal Highway Administration administrator is going to be more significant in a Biden administration than that position was in a Trump administration,” Matousek said.
Matousek said the industry will be watching what happens with highway funding, especially discretionary grant funding.
“Most of your federal highway dollars go out through formula funding, distributed to states based on a number of things. FHWA can’t necessarily change that, but these grant programs, the discretionary grant programs, the thinking on that could change. The Biden administration might prioritize projects that are different than the Trump administration,” Matousek said.
When it comes to trucking issues, the position of administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will be significant for the U.S. trucking industry and that is the norm for that job, Matousek said.
“I don’t really think former USDOT secretary Elaine Chao was very involved with trucking issues. That was all at FMCSA or, in some cases, FHWA. To be honest, I am more curious about who the next FMCSA administrator will be because that will probably have more of a direct impact on our issues,” Matousek said.
But even with that, Matousek and Pugh are hoping to be able to talk sooner rather than later with Buttigieg and the new administration to get their issues and concerns front and center.
“With the incoming administration, our first priority is actually getting a meeting with them, with their transition team, with the new folks who will be at the department, at FMCSA and FHWA,” Matousek said.
Pugh echoed that and said that the group is ready to listen — and to talk.
“With any new appointee like this, a fresh face, we are hoping that he will still want to talk with the industry. It seems like a lot of times, with these appointments, that they don’t really want to speak with industry. With Chao, she didn’t have time to talk to anybody really, it seemed. So, we are hoping with Pete, it’ll be different and hopefully he’ll be willing to talk with us and to listen to us,” Pugh said.