U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made three stops in Metro Atlanta Friday as he promoted President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan. The plan includes $174 billion for electric vehicle manufacturing, $115 billion for bridge, highway, and road repairs, $100 million for broadband access and expansion, $85 billion for transit improvements, and $25 billion for airport upgrades. It also includes funding for elderly care.
First, Secretary Buttigieg was lowered into a section of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport’s new Plane Train extension tunnel on a yellow cage elevator with several airport executives and construction officials, who talked him through the challenges of drilling through the granite undergirding Atlanta.
“It was remarkable, just from a technical standpoint, to see what they’re doing with this tunneling through the rock to expand the train that in turn, makes it possible for more passengers to go through this, this incredibly busy airport,” said Buttigieg. “And what goes through my mind is not just what it means for passengers, but also what it means for the community. Because of course, the more vibrant the airport, the more jobs that can be created. And it’s one of the reasons I think it’s so important to pass the President’s jobs plan, because it has more dollars for airports and other pieces of infrastructure that in turn, support so many jobs, yes, around the world, but also right here at home. And Atlanta is a great example.”
Next, Secretary Buttigieg traveled via MARTA to East Point, where he was joined by Senators Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock, U.S. Representative Nikema Williams, and Mayor of East Point, Deana Holiday Ingram. Mayor Ingram showed Secretary Buttigieg the mixed-use developments, as well as toured the Station Soccer facility which has been a major hit for soccer fans around the city.
“What we see is a sense of imagination,” Buttigieg said at East Point City Hall. “We see a sense of vision. We see a commitment to inclusion like the vision to make sure transit-oriented development that we see out here is affordable.”
Buttigieg also spoke with MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker, as Parker explained MARTA expansion won’t happen without federal dollars.
“We need to recognize that we’re building these projects for 40, 50 years,” said MARTA CEO Jeffrey Parker, who rode with Buttigieg to the East Point station. “The city is growing incredibly fast. The region is growing incredibly fast. So the tracks or the busway that we lay down today is going to serve these communities for decades to come.”
MARTA is seeking to add a light rail on parts of the Atlanta Beltline; on a line southwest toward Greenbriar; as well as the “Clifton Corridor,” toward Emory and Decatur.
Next, Secretary Buttigieg went to the Atlanta BeltLine headquarters inside the former Equitable building downtown and held a roundtable meeting with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, U.S. Representatives Lucy McBath of Georgia’s sixth district and Carolyn Bourdeaux of Georgia’s seventh district, MARTA CEO Jeffrey A. Parker and Atlanta BeltLine CEO Clyde Higgs.
In my interview with Secretary Buttigieg, I asked him for his thoughts regarding the BeltLine Project, and its integration of light rail, its ability to connect Atlanta’s communities to jobs and upward economic mobility.
“The vision I heard today for the Beltline is this idea of making sure that it serves everybody, and that it is directly connected to things like affordable housing, that are going to make a difference for people at every part of the economic ladder in this,” said Buttigieg. “You know, this is a community that has a remarkable history in terms of, of course, the civil rights movement, in terms of Black-owned businesses.
But there’s also a lot of work ahead, a big hill to climb in terms of equality, racial and economic justice. And so every project, including a transportation-themed project, can either help or it can hurt when it comes to equity. And what I think is so interesting, and so important, are the ideas that have emerged about how to make sure that these public and community investments lead to more wealth generation for everybody, and more prosperity for everybody. And I see a lot of intention about that, realizing it won’t happen on its own, and it’s not automatic.”
The reason Buttigieg’s visit was so important to the cities of Atlanta, East Point, the suburbs and exurbs is the glue that reliable transportation infrastructure does provide between the city center [and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport] to the rest of the region. U.S. Rep. Bourdeaux explained it takes her up to two hours to drive from her district to the Atlanta Airport.
“As I talk to people today, one of my major applause lines is when I say we have a soul-sucking commute in the seventh district. And dear Lord, we need transit,” Bourdeaux explained. “So we are working on this, I sit on transportation infrastructure. And I’m working on an initiative that we are calling, ‘Future Fit the Suburbs.’
And this is a piece of our vision to address the growing needs in the suburbs, to make smart investments now to prepare for the next century, from preparing for the impact of climate change to building the transit systems of tomorrow.”
Republicans have said Biden’s plan costs way too much. On May 21, the White House lowered its spending proposal on its infrastructure and jobs proposal, from more than $2 trillion to $1.7 trillion.
The latest figure — announced by White House press secretary Jen Psaki at Friday’s press briefing, and detailed in a memo to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia that NPR obtained — is still more than $1 trillion higher than the offer Capito and other Republicans had initially made to the White House.
Congresswoman Bourdeaux also announced that she, in conjunction with Congresswoman McBath and Williams, introduced the National Regional Greenway act to provide funding for the construction and expansion of greenways across the country.
The bill would create corridors of land that would connect disparate communities with a beautiful recreational space and environmentally friendly travel routes. These would be bike paths and pedestrian paths typically could be used not only to get around the communities in an environmentally healthy way, but also helps enhance economic development by providing an important amenity to communities. This program would support projects like the visionary Chattahoochee River Greenway, a proposed multi-use path that would run along the Chattahoochee River in Georgia.
“Working Together, we can make smart investments now that enhance our quality of life. Or we can spend more time and money and effort retrofitting our communities many years down the road,” Bourdeaux explained. “We can upcycle or abandoned malls, we can create a national infrastructure bank, we can implement innovative projects like the ray, which takes wasted space by the side of the highway, uses it for solar panels, and then takes the energy generated to power electric charging stations at rest stops. By investing now we can help slow the effect of climate change, create jobs, address equity and social justice issues and position America for success in the years to come.”
Without much support from the Governor’s office, the relationship between local leaders and the Federal Government is critical to any implementation of these projects. My final question to Secretary Buttigieg was his observation of the symbiotic relationships Mayor Bottoms, Mayor Ingram had with their U.S. House Reps and Senators.
“There are lots of different issues that, of course, have lively debates, but there’s a shared vision,” Buttigieg said. “You can see it with the mayor with the senators with the congressional leadership and the civic and business leaders we talked to, who really believe in Atlanta being a place that’s going to grow and this is going to grow equitably. And seeing that local vision helps me understand what we’ve got to support with the federal dollars that were mobilizing. So anytime I see that level of coordination, that level of how can I put it when the member of Congress says something that rhymes with something that the mayor is saying. That means a lot and it’s certainly something I noticed today.”