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Pittsburgh Is The Perfect Place To Talk Infrastructure, Buttigieg Says

Margaret J. Krauss
90.5 WESA
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks atop Mt. Washington about infrastructure needs on May 6, 2021. He was joined by U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Congressman Conor Lamb, PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian, and Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg traveled to Pittsburgh on Thursday to talk about infrastructure and tout President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which proposes $2.3 trillion to modernize the usual suspects — roads, bridges, and transportation — as well as a broader commitment to caretaking, affordable housing and universal broadband access.

Standing on Mt. Washington, Buttigieg said “Pittsburgh embodies both the challenge and the opportunities around American infrastructure.” He referenced the city’s transition from an industrial powerhouse to a modern economy anchored by jobs in technology and medicine. But he said through all of that change, people were still relying on infrastructure that’s nearly 100 years old.

“We need a generational investment,” Buttigieg said, noting that Pittsburgh’s infrastructure woes are not unique. In 2021, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the country’s infrastructure as a “C-”.

Buttigieg said that while infrastructure was the theme of his visit, “the point of this plan is jobs.” And he promised that the work of overhauling the nation would be done with American labor to create family-sustaining jobs.

“We’re talking about the greatest level of ambition we have seen in our lifetimes,” he said. “We’re going to build infrastructure that makes sense for the next 100 years.”

The secretary was joined by Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who said he took inspiration from the past when thinking about the major investments needed in the region. Casey said when southwestern Pennsylvania’s economy collapsed in the 1980s, people “did not wait for the future when they got knocked down. They worked and they invented their own future.”

But Casey said the federal government has failed to step up. He called on members of “both parties in both houses” to make the investment outlined in the American Jobs Plan.

His Republican counterpart, Sen. Pat Toomey, was not in attendance at the event, but also traveled to Pittsburgh this week to talk about infrastructure this week. Toomey and other Republicans would like to see a far more limited investment of $586 billion that would invest in what he called “actual infrastructure” -- roads, bridges, highways and airports -- rather than services like childcare.

Buttigieg countered that there’s a strong argument to expand the definition of infrastructure, adding that the administration is open to a lot of different approaches. He noted that the plan is “fully paid for” under the administration’s proposal to raise corporate taxes to 28%; it would generate enough revenue to cover the costs of the plan without reinstating the previous rate of 35%.

In response to a question about a proposal from some Pennsylvania officials to toll additional bridges, Buttigieg said officials will have to make decisions about how best to structure their budgets. He said he was intrigued by a state commission tasked with finding long-term funding solutions and PennDOT’s creation of an Office of Alternative Funding.

PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian, who was at the event, said the commonwealth lost millions in revenue during the pandemic. The difference between what’s needed to maintain roads and bridges in a state of good repair and available funding is roughly $8 billion. But she said with “sincere federal engagement” she feels hopeful about the future of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure.

“With bold investment we can complete badly needed road and bridge reconstruction, we can improve the assets that get our goods to market, we can reduce costly weight restrictions and closures, we can reinforce those critical transit services that get people to work and keep them connected.”

Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Port Authority CEO Katharine Kelleman, Karima Howard of ATU Local 85 and Congressman Conor Lamb all joined Buttigieg in support of the American Jobs Plan.

Margaret J. Krauss is WESA’s senior reporter. She covers development and transportation, and has produced award-winning podcasts on housing, work, and Pittsburgh’s lesser-known history. Before joining the newsroom full time, she covered the challenges facing Pennsylvania cities as a statewide reporter, and spent another life as an assistant editor for National Geographic Kids Magazine in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at mkrauss@wesa.fm.
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