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'You are just getting started': US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg impressed by Austin's mobility efforts

During his visit with the mayor, he delivered remarks about how infrastructure investments can create jobs and economic opportunities across communities.

AUSTIN, Texas — U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Austin Wednesday to see some of the city's transportation projects and discuss infrastructure for the future.

"I'm deeply impressed by the work that has gone on here," Sec. Buttigieg said in a one-on-one interview with KVUE. 

Buttigieg joined Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Capital Metro CEO Randy Clarke, among other city leaders, during the visit. He delivered remarks at the Plaza Saltillo station about how infrastructure investments can create jobs and economic opportunities across communities.

"Living in Austin used to mean you have to have a car, you have no choice. Investing in transit opens up choices for more and more people," Buttigieg said.

In the Capital City, the options continue to grow. Four major projects have the attention of the federal government right now. 

"Not a lot of communities took that bold and difficult decision to vote for more tax revenue to be raised and then to use it on transit that will benefit everybody. Doing that well could make Austin a national model, and it's something I'll be watching closely as I travel around the rest of the country," Buttigieg told KVUE's Bryce Newberry.

During the press conference, Adler stressed how Austin will need the federal government's assistance.

"We're not only building infrastructure, but we're building it the right way, for the right reasons, for the right people," Adler said.

The federal infrastructure law will bring billions to Texas to revamp roads, bridges, airports and more over the next five years including: 

  • More than $27 billion for roads and bridges
  • $3.4 billion for public transportation
  • $1.2 billion for airports
  • More than $400 million for electric vehicle chargers

Billions more are available to individual cities and projects.

"Part of what we're looking for in these competitive grants are projects and visions that are going to lift whole communities up and do a lot of good things at the same time," Buttigieg said. "When we talk about these goals like safety, equity, climate, job creation, those don't have to be an either-or. You can do a lot of those things all at once. And when you do, that makes a given idea more competitive for these very limited dollars."

Community criticism continues in the Capital City over the plan to widen the highway that has divided Austin for decades. The infrastructure law includes $1 billion for reconnecting communities. 

"One thing that's very important to consider, if there's a vision or a plan to expand those highways, is to do that in a way that benefits more than it creates harm," Buttigieg said. 

One of his focuses at the U.S. Department of Transportation is reconnecting communities split by infrastructure, like the impact of I-35 on East Austin.

During his interview with KVUE, Sec. Buttigieg expressed interest in the potential $800 million project to put a portion of the highway underneath deck plazas that reconnect the city, known as a cap and stitch. 

"We're planning to support a number of visions," he said. "This could be that kind of vision. In so many communities where this has happened, where you see a highway or a railway, or another piece of infrastructure that divides sometimes a low-income from a high-income area, sometimes even divides a Black neighborhood from a white neighborhood, we've got to get away from that and make sure the transportation always connects more than it divides."

He said Austinites have a lot to look forward to even though all of the projects won't be completed for years.

"Austin, you have a lot to be proud of, and I know that you are just getting started," Buttigieg said.

His visit to Austin comes after the U.S. Department of Transportation announced a planning grant for Capital Metro to help the community plan for transit-oriented development (TOD) at eight proposed stations along the 6.5-mile Orange Line South light rail corridor. 

"Affordable housing and affordable transportation go hand in hand, and when we get it right, transportation benefits everyone," said Buttigieg. "What you see right now is folks who are forced to live impossibly far away so they can afford a home or folks who are forced to live in unaffordable housing to be close to work."

Later in the day, the transportation secretary attended the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) to host a town hall about President Joe Biden's infrastructure law. After a months-long standoff between progressives and moderates in 2021, U.S. Congress passed a $1 trillion package of road and other infrastructure projects.

RELATED: Where will the $1 trillion infrastructure dollars go in Austin?

"Billions of dollars are heading to Texas, going to everything from roads and bridges to rail and transit to ports and airports," said Buttigieg. "The most important thing, of course, is that transportation connects people to opportunity and that it creates opportunity without leaving people behind."

Austin may also get help as leaders expand Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in an extensive improvement plan.

Beto O'Rourke, the Democratic Texas gubernatorial candidate, will also be in Austin Wednesday for a couple of events. In the morning, he's scheduled to hold a press conference about the recent abuse allegations at a state rehab facility for underage sex trafficking survivors. At 5:30 p.m., O'Rourke will host a town hall event at the Doris Miller Auditorium on Rosewood Avenue.

O'Rourke also spoke at SXSW earlier in the festival.

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