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The transportation secretary said the Biden administration will weigh liberal priorities in awarding funding, but that it will take into account other factors as well.
Pressed over whether the Biden administration will push a social agenda through the $1.2 trillion infrastructure law approved last year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg assured the nation’s governors the department will consider other factors in handing out grant dollars, such as whether states will make streets safer.
Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked Buttigieg about the issue at the National Governors Association’s winter conference in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, questioning whether states with fewer union workers will lose out to more unionized states.
“I know that the president has an appreciation for unions, and that there are some preferences I understand in the bill for union work being done,” Hutchinson, the association’s president, told Buttigieg.
He went on to ask about whether projects in right-to-work states would be at a disadvantage competing for grant dollars compared to those in states with laws that are more favorable to labor unions.
“Will those be treated equally?” he said.
“How does that preference for unions fit with right-to-work states and the fact that we have very little union labor in our state?” Hutchinson added, referring to laws in Arkansas and 26 other states where workers cannot be required to be in a union.
Buttigieg responded by acknowledging that the administration will be considering how infrastructure dollars will advance a number of progressive policy goals.
“We are very proudly pro worker,” he said. “That sits alongside a number of goals around safety, around economic growth, around climate equity and others that are within the parameters set forth by the law,” he said.
“Of course, there's a benefit to meeting as many of our policy goals as possible at the same time,” he said of distributing infrastructure dollars.But, he added, “I also recognize that the reality is different in a lot of states, in terms of state laws and how they interact with the workforce.”
And, he said, states can still score points toward getting competitive grant dollars for projects even if they are not fully aligned with the administration’s agenda.
“Sometimes you'll see a project that is so outstanding with regard to safety that we don't expect it to be a flagship program from maybe a climate or equity standpoint,” he said. “But we want to make sure that it's not negative in those regards.”
The infrastructure law does not necessarily require all the work to be done by union workers. Still, the White House touted the infrastructure package as an opportunity to “create good-paying union jobs repairing our roads and bridges, replacing lead pipes, and building energy transmission lines.”
A fact sheet released by the administration when Biden reached a deal over the bill with a bipartisan group of senators, said, “the overwhelming majority” of the funds would be subject to so-called Davis-Bacon requirements stipulating that contractors must pay workers on construction projects a prevailing wage.
Republicans Bristle Over Biden’s Priorities
Hutchinson’s questions came amid concerns by Republican governors that the administration will seek to attach liberal strings to infrastructure dollars available to states.
“Excessive consideration of equity, union memberships or climate as lenses to view suitable projects would be counterproductive,” Hutchinson and 15 other Republican governors wrote in a letter to Biden earlier this month.
“Your administration should not attempt to push a social agenda through hard infrastructure investments and instead should consider economically sound principles that align with state priorities,” the letter added.
Doug Ducey, the Republican governor of Arizona, a right-to-work state, wasn’t reassured by Buttigieg’s remarks. “The proof will be in the distribution of the funds,” he said in an interview.
“I think that there's a place at the table for different entities, but these dollars should not be for political payoffs,” said Ducey, who was not among the GOP governors who wrote Biden. The funding, he said, “should be to build our roads and bridges, ports and airports and water infrastructure. The secretary is a very skilled communicator, but we will be able to follow the money.”
Republican Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt worried the administration will favor urban areas. He told Buttigieg that his state ranks 45th in road safety and that it is trying to reduce accidents by building shoulders on rural, one-lane roads.
“What are you going to do to make sure that rural states with those rural highways and shoulders, that we're going to get a fair shot at some of those dollars?” Stitt asked.
Buttigieg assured the governors that transportation funds will be widely available. “We take very seriously our responsibility to support people in every part of the country, in places with rural and urban life,” he said.
The transportation secretary, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, acknowledged that applying for federal funds can have “enormous complexity” that can make it harder for smaller and rural states to compete.
Buttigieg said his department is “working to make sure that we make our processes as user-friendly as possible.”
Democrats Spotlight Upsides
Meanwhile, Democratic governors like Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan highlighted the upsides of the infrastructure law—one of Biden’s signature accomplishments thus far during his term.
Whitmer said it would “turbocharge” her efforts around public works.“I ran on fixing the damn roads in Michigan,” she said. “I think we're going to adjust that going into this next year and say fix the dams and roads.
”North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, noted that transportation policies affect a number of areas the White House is trying to address and asked about the Biden administration’s views on this.
“Can you give me some idea of what you guys would be looking for, as states are looking to merge funding forces together to make progress on infrastructure?” Cooper said.
Buttigieg said transit-oriented development is an example of a category of projects that the administration sees as having multiple benefits.
“People pay for housing and transportation in the same month, and yet the federal government doesn't really reflect that reality,” he said. “There are ways to stitch together housing or development dollars with transit dollars that are going to help people be closer to work.”
He added that he has been talking to U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge about how to support these types of projects.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.