Ackemann: What Buttigieg’s role as transportation chief means for Silicon Valley
The Santa Clara Caltrain station is pictured in this file photo.

Happy New Year!

Is it Groundhog Day yet?

This year, regardless of what Punxsutawney Phil says on Feb. 2, a few things will definitely be different. Among those differences will be a new administration and that has already meant seismic changes in state of California politics.

But after a round of speculation about the fate of VTA CEO Nuria Fernandez, we know that the Department of Transportation could be overseen by South Bend mayor and former presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, if approved by the Senate. Buttigieg is Biden’s cabinet nominee and if history is any indication his department could play a pivotal role in shoring up the economy as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

In December, I had the opportunity to talk with former U.S. Department of Transportation chief of staff and South Santa Clara County resident, John Flaherty, about what Buttigieg’s nomination could mean for transportation and infrastructure investments in a Biden administration and particularly for the Bay Area.

John Flaherty is pictured in this file photo.

Flaherty served under former Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta. In his years in national politics, he also worked as chief of staff to Mineta in Congress and as chief of staff for Peninsula U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo.

During his presidential campaign, Buttigieg distinguished himself by proposing an ambitious billion-dollar investment program in federal infrastructure projects. But beyond his proposal we don’t know much about how Buttigieg will approach his role as Transportation Department chief.

Flaherty offered some insights.

In his time with the Transportation Department, Flaherty learned what works in this important role — among those observations are the character traits a successful transportation secretary needs.

“A cabinet secretary, particularly in transportation, needs three elements to watch: leadership skills, management skills and the third is expertise,” Flaherty said. “He certainly has the first in my judgment and is said to be a good manager and he has some familiarity with transportation issues, but it will have to be a collaborative effort by the administration to ensure that he is set up for success.”

That’s because Buttigieg may be eloquent, smart and ambitious but there’s still a steep learning curve with a broad portfolio that includes airports, shipping ports, railroads, highways and more.

In Flaherty’s assessment, the Biden team will have to grapple with several considerations as they develop its plan.

“The first is that infrastructure in real value has declined in our country from 2007 to 2017, according to the Brookings Institute,” he said. “And the percentage of the GDP that we spend on it has also dropped so those are the economic figures for what everyone sees everyday, which is that transit is suffering — particularly during the pandemic — but across the board even before the pandemic, it was in a tough spot.”

A second consideration will look at how infrastructure investments can be used to stimulate the economy post-pandemic. In the early days of the Obama administration, Biden led the economic recovery part of which included the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which allocated $1.5 billion dollars to “shovel-ready” projects.

The BART/Oakland Airport Connector and the BART to Silicon Valley project were two Bay Area recipients of ARRA funding in 2010. One limitation to programs such as this is the need to get money back into the economy means that projects selected for investment can’t be in the early planning or design phases where the capital investment money could wait for years before the project is ready to break ground. That constrained the pool of potential projects that could be considered for funding at the time so a Biden administration will have to determine the best approach for doling out those funds should they follow a similar path.

The third consideration will be how the infrastructure program reflects other administration priorities. Biden has already signaled plans to emphasize climate change by elevating it to a cabinet level position with John Kerry’s climate czar appointment, an area in which the Transportation Department is likely to play a significant role.

Flaherty’s advice is that we look at who Buttigieg and Biden select for deputy roles in the Transportation Department. That should signal the direction the administration is most likely to take as it rolls out its policy objectives.

But Flaherty expects action on this front to be aggressive. “I think it will be one of the first big issues out of the gate because as tough as those three components are, that is the best opportunity for a bipartisan bill to occur,” he said.

Flaherty left me with one thought about the future.

“There’s a lot of unrealized potential in urban/suburban transit systems and Caltrain is one of them,” Flaherty said.

Our leaders, Flaherty went on, need to think creatively about the way these systems can be used to address equity issues, among other cross-policy objectives, but to do so leaders will need to think about transportation differently.

That’s something Bay Area leaders like Fernandez have already embraced through the creation of innovative roles like an on-staff Business Development team.

It’s a model more industry leaders could embrace. But as is often the case in the public transportation industry, innovation will have to take a back seat to survival as transit providers struggle to weather pandemic-related ridership and revenue losses.

These are unprecedented times. The question for the Biden administration will be whether they take an unprecedented approach to these challenges or whether public transportation continues to be trapped in an economic loop of investment and recessionary economic survival – sort of like Groundhog Day.

Jayme Ackemann is the former director of marketing and communications for Caltrain, SamTrans and the San Mateo County Transportation Authority. She spent most of her 20-year career working on the Bay Area’s transportation challenges. including roles at the San Mateo County Transit District, VTA, Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District and San Jose Water.

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