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Indy Q&A: Transportation Secretary Buttigieg on infrastructure bill’s perks for Nevadans

Chanel Pulido
Chanel Pulido

The $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill making its way through Congress could make the biggest difference in a fast-growing state such as Nevada, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said during a visit to Henderson City Hall on Wednesday. 

The bill would fund various public works projects across the country ranging from road improvements to more electric vehicle charging stations. It also includes $65 billion in funding for broadband internet infrastructure and $55 billion for water infrastructure projects such as the Large Scale Water Recycling Project Investment Act, a piece of legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) in June that would recycle water in Nevada and 16 other western states.

After weeks of discussions between Democratic and Republican lawmakers, the Senate approved the bipartisan infrastructure bill (69-30) on Tuesday, with 19 Republicans – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – in favor. While progressives said the package doesn’t go far enough in implementing Biden’s priorities and conservatives said the bill was too costly, lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum were able to come together in a rare instance of compromise and agreement. 

In an interview with NPR in April, Buttigieg called the plan a “common sense investment” that would benefit the American economy and create long-term jobs for people. It will be funded by unspent federal COVID-19 relief aid, federal unemployment insurance aid and other existing federal pots of money

Buttigieg also visited Boulder Highway, a notorious road that is the site of 10 percent of all pedestrian fatalities in the state. The city of Henderson was given a $40 million federal grant to make improvements to the highway in June. 

Although the grant is separate from the infrastructure bill that still awaits approval by the House and must then be signed into law by President Joe Biden, it is symbolic of the type of infrastructure improvements the bill would enact across the nation, Buttigieg said. 

But what else can Nevadans expect from this bill? And how would the measure address the state’s unique challenges? Buttigieg provided more details about what’s in the bill for Nevadans in an interview for the IndyMatters podcast. 

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Rep. Susie Lee (NV-03), left, talks to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during a news conference in Henderson discussing the $40 million grant for the City of Henderson Reimagine Boulder Highway Project on Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (Jeff Scheid / The Nevada Independent)

How will drought and the effects of climate change in Nevada affect the state’s critical energy infrastructure, such as the Hoover Dam, and how does the bill address this issue?

The droughts that we're seeing in Nevada and across the West reflect both the impact of climate change and the need for greater resiliency. So there are a couple of things I would point to in this infrastructure package. 

One is that it has over $50 billion specifically assigned for resiliency efforts. That's droughts, fires, floods, and preparing for the impact that they're going to have on our critical infrastructure, whether we're talking about the example [of] the Hoover Dam … stress on the [electric] grid, things that happened to transit systems like in Portland where the heat wave threatened to melt the cables that power their transit systems so they had to shut it down, or the roads that we see washed out – all of this is evidence that we need to invest in [resilience efforts]. 

Of course, the other thing we need to do is stop catastrophic climate change from getting any worse, and that's also an important part of this bill. So when you see funding for electric vehicle charging stations, when you see funding for public transit which enables us to get more cars off the road by giving people alternatives … those are about making sure that we slow climate change.

Speaking of electric vehicles, rural and low-income communities are often the hardest places to sell these vehicles for various reasons. What specific strategies do you have, or does the bill include, to make these vehicles more accessible to these communities? 

Rural and low-income Americans are among those with the most to gain from the electric vehicle (EV) revolution. And I say that because, first of all, if you're low-income, then gas is often a bigger share of your family budget, and so you'll save a whole lot of gas money if you have an electric vehicle … If you're in a rural community or [a] more spread-out community, you drive more, which means of course you use more gas and again you'll save more money with an EV. 

The challenge often is the upfront cost, and that's why the president's jobs plan proposed rebates and incentives to lower that upfront cost. 

Eventually, over the years, this might not be such a problem because the more we make them here in America, the cheaper they're going to get, but right now, they're still viewed as a luxury item, and we've got to buy down that cost difference. That's something that, again, was in the president's plan. It's being discussed actively right now in the context of the budget resolution that's coming on the heels of the bipartisan deal. 

But I would also mention that in the bipartisan deal are charging station infrastructure grants and funds which are going to be important for tearing down another barrier to EV adoption, which is range anxiety and the concern about whether you can get to where you need to be.

These things can go hundreds of miles, but in a rural area or desert area where you really need to make sure that range is there, it can make a big difference to make sure that there is a corridor with those kinds of charging stations along the way so that you'll never be short.

We’ve been hearing about potential high-speed rail service between Las Vegas and Southern California for years now. Under this infrastructure bill, do you think we’ll finally see this project come to reality? 

Certainly a project like that has a much better chance of becoming a reality if we get the funding that's been proposed for our rail network. 

We've got to do two things. First, we’ve got to take care of what we've already got. There's a huge repair backlog when it comes to our rail and other infrastructure. And the second thing we got to do is make sure there's enough funding to actually expand and add, including high-speed.  And certainly when you look at the population growth in Nevada and across the Southwest, it makes this area, in my view, a very good candidate for rail expansion projects. 

The bipartisan package represents the biggest new federal support for passenger rail since Amtrak was [first created].

Will the money be allocated to this specific project, though?

The bill isn't designed on a project-by-project basis. What it does is it sets up the funding that will make it possible for more projects to happen, or for the projects that are happening now to happen faster.

From the opportunities here in Nevada to so many things that need to happen around the country, we've been frankly falling behind for decades. This is our chance not just to make up for lost time, but to actually get ahead. 

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a news conference in Henderson on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Jeff Scheid / The Nevada Independent)

Would it be left up to state and local governments to decide what they use the money for, or are you speaking with them about specific projects? 

I would point to a couple of things. There are formulas that go out to every state, and that's part of how our transportation funding will grow, but we're also going to have competitive grants, and that's where communities or rail operators can apply based on ideas that they have. 

We're not looking to prescribe all of the answers from Washington. We recognize … that local leaders and states are often going to develop solutions that work for them. The answers don't all have to come from my department, but the funding should.

What is the timeline on Federal Aviation Administration approval of the renaming of McCarran International Airport to Harry Reid International Airport?

That's something I'd have to go back and check on, but what I'll say is I'm a huge fan of Harry Reid. [I] got to know him during my own many visits to Nevada during the presidential campaign and think he is just a towering figure in our country, and I'm always pleased to hear about ways for him to be acknowledged and honored.

What does the infrastructure bill mean for Nevada specifically, and what have you learned about Nevada while you were campaigning here?

What I would say about Nevada is that you have so many communities here that are fast-growing and that need the infrastructure to keep up. There are so many examples. We just saw one in Henderson. In that case, what you have is a highway that's unusually dangerous. It accounts for [almost] 10 percent of pedestrian fatalities … in the entire state just on this one [15-mile] stretch of highway, and local leaders have a vision for how to make it safer with this great state-local-federal partnership. 

We're funding it. It won a competitive grant called INFRA through my department, but we could be doing so much more on projects like this for safety benefits around Nevada and around the country. Now, when I do turn to the numbers, if you look, for example, at those formulas I was talking about earlier and what it means to get Nevada share – [for Nevada alone,] that's $2.5 billion for road funding through this bill [and] $460 million for public transportation ... There are over 1,000 miles of highway in poor condition [in Nevada].

This is a place where commute times have been growing as a result of that growth … And so, especially in a future-oriented area like this, it's one of the places where I think that infrastructure funding can make the biggest difference.

California and Nevada have been debating who is going to pay for the expansion of I-15, which is a highway that connects Southern Nevada and California and is often backed up with traffic on busy weekends. Do you think that money from the infrastructure bill could be earmarked for the expansion of this highway? 

Well, we’re always best able to support projects when there is alignment among the states, but that can be a challenge, and one of the things that takes some of the pressure off is when we have a bigger pot of funding to work with to begin with, which is what this bill represents. 

Now I'll also say that part of what often needs to be done to address congestion sometimes includes expansion of highways, but sometimes includes just creating alternatives. 

We want to make sure we're not inducing demand. In other words, adding lanes that simply induce more people to drive, and then a few years after spending a lot of money, you're just as congested as before. We need to be smart and give people options and alternatives. Yes, to be able to drive efficiently and safely, but also rail alternatives, transit alternatives, good ways to get to where they need to be so that no one piece of infrastructure gets overburdened or too strained.

I know the bill has included a lot of Amtrak expansions across the country. Do you see Amtrak coming back to Las Vegas under this new bill? 

I certainly think that Amtrak would be excited about serving Las Vegas in new ways and we want to make sure we're supporting those visions for growth. Now, part of what they need to do, again, is look after the existing assets that they have, but with this level of funding that's possible in this infrastructure package, I believe it will be possible to expand services to areas where it's either never been, or has been withdrawn or suspended in recent years.

I’m just trying to get a sense of what Nevada’s next steps are. You said that your department is ready to start deploying people on the ground and start getting these projects running as soon as the bill is signed into law. Are there any other specific projects that Nevadans can expect in the coming months under this bill? 

For INFRA, we got I think $6 to $7 billion worth of applications for only less than $1 billion worth of funding. So we would have been able to do ... that many more good projects that were ready to go [in addition to improving Boulder Highway]. 

If we [get] more funding to work with, I would envision that across Nevada, you're gonna see more projects applying to both our INFRA program and a program called RAISE, which used to be known as TIGER, which I know has made a difference around here as well, and also that formula that just allows more of the highway maintenance, bridge maintenance and other things to be looked after. 

I would also point to the broadband support that is going to make a difference here. We need to make sure that every American can have access to affordable, fast broadband. Especially during the pandemic era, we've seen how, if you don't have it, that's an obstacle to being able to participate in the economy or even just being able to do your homework. Part of what's exciting about this bill is an expanded vision of what infrastructure means that includes digital infrastructure, and I think that'll benefit a lot of Nevada residents. 

Bottom line, whether you're in the middle of one of our biggest cities ... a rural or tribal area, this bill will benefit your community, and I'm really excited to see what ideas Nevada comes forward with. But of course, first we gotta get this thing passed.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks about the $40 million grant for the City of Henderson Reimagine Boulder Highway Project during a news conference in Henderson on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. (Jeff Scheid / The Nevada Independent)

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