Pete Buttigieg addresses flight delays, train derailments in heated hearing: 5 takeaways

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg faced criticism from House Republicans at a hearing on Wednesday, with lawmakers zeroing in on issues ranging from flight delays to train derailments and immigration.

Buttigieg, who made history as the first openly gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet secretary in 2021, was once seen as a top alternative to President Joe Biden when he ran during the 2020 presidential race.

But since serving in Biden's administration, the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor has since faced sharp criticism from Republicans over transportation nightmares that have occurred during his tenure, such as a train derailment in Ohio; angry, stranded travelers in airports during the holidays and outdated technology used by the air travel industry.

Here are five top takeaways from the hearing.

Lawmakers lash out at Buttigieg over transportation funding

Questions about how the Department of Transportation is handling its funding from Congress spurred heated back-and-forth discussion between Buttigieg and lawmakers on Wednesday, with Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., setting the scene and asking about department requests for additional funds.

“We continue to hear about the need for more money for infrastructure investment, but it seems that you're not spending the money you have already. What's going on here?” Crawford asked.

Buttigieg explained that the process of identifying a project for funding, executing a grant agreement and actually spending the money “doesn’t always happen within one or even two calendar years.”

Crawford pressed on, asking Buttigieg to explain “all the taxpayer money” that's sitting in the department’s bank account, instead of being designated for various projects.

“Nobody's sitting around and neither are the dollars, but the gap between the fiscal year in which it's authorized or appropriated, and the moment when that construction takes place, that's very real,” Buttigieg said.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, alleged that “despite never before seen levels of funds” going to the department, transportation “does not seem to be safer today than it did just a few years ago,” referencing car fatalities, trains derailing and other issues.

"From what I can see your office is simply writing blank checks to fulfill Mr. Biden's climate initiatives," Babin said, referencing President Joe Biden's infrastructure initiatives that have also had an eye on mitigating climate change.

“I would argue that expenditures like the $18.3 million dollars that I approved for the Bayport Terminal is not a random Biden administration priority, but something that benefits both your district and the American people,” Buttigieg said, referencing a Texas port. “We're investing in roads and bridges and ports and airports and rail transit.”

Transportation safety takes center stage

Buttigieg didn't only take criticism from Republicans during the hearing. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., expressed concern over rail incidents and accidents endangering people and communities, noting that in the seven months since the Norfolk Southern Railway accident in Ohio, there have been more than 500 train accidents.

While Buttigieg acknowledged that the Transportation Department can help improve rail crossing and the safe transportation of materials, he also urged the committee to ensure transportation safety work can continue by “preventing a government shutdown."

A shutdown could take place in less than two weeks as House members remain deeply divided over spending.

Rep. Grace Napolitano, D-Calif., also asked the secretary about safety programs for children across the country, particularly as they travel to school.

Going back to his days as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Buttigieg said Safe Routes to School funding, which promotes walking and biking to schools, was critical to improving essential transportation options for kids.

“I was able to be in Elkhart, Indiana, where hundreds of students on foot need to cross what is currently a rail line that can be blocked by a train just to get to the high school there,” Buttigieg said, before arguing to lawmakers that congressional funding is what allows the Transportation Department to invest in safety programs for the nation's children.

Pilot shortages and Joe Biden's age

Age has become a central topic in the 2024 presidential race as the Democratic and Republican frontrunners, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, are the oldest candidates running.

These concerns were brought up during the hearing on Wednesday, when Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, noted that there is a pilot shortage and asked Buttigieg whether he thought the limits set for commercial airline pilots who are asked to retire at age of 65 were fair.

When Buttigieg replied yes, Nehls pressed him, asking “How about having people in the highest office in our nation over 80?”

While Buttigieg said that “I think most of us can agree that certain professions like flying an aircraft are different,” Nehls interrupted him by asking “Should you be forced to retire as the president of the United States at 80?”

"I think there are a lot of folks here who could do a great job regardless of their age, but I wouldn't necessarily want them flying my airplane," Buttigieg joked back.

Tempers flare over electric vehicles

Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Minn., and Buttigieg engaged in an intense back-and-forth over electric vehicles during the hearing on Wednesday.

“Do you know the average temperature in a Minnesota winter?” Stauber asked before answering “it's 12 degrees, although some of my constituents has temperatures as cold as 42 below last year,”

“Secretary, how many states have an average winter temperature of below freezing? It's half the country. Does cold weather affect an EV’s battery life? Yes or no?” Stauber asked.

Buttigieg replied “Yes, it does.”

Stauber targeted the price of electric vehicles, among other factors, before asking “Do you think that it’s fair for your administration to force constituents to purchase these electric vehicles when they're not working? Especially in northern Minnesota?”

Buttigieg pushed back, clarifying that the Biden administration isn't forcing individual citizens to "purchase any technology." But Stauber replied with “You want two thirds of America's Americans to be using electric vehicle” - likely referring to a proposal put forward by the Biden administration earlier this year.

Stauber also claimed that the department was outsourcing mining on critical materials for the production of electric vehicles to other countries rather than the U.S., though Buttigieg responded that the department is "going to help make sure more of this material is produced and refined here on American soil by American workers."

GOP lawmaker presses Buttigieg over migration

Rep. Van Drew, R-N.J., told Buttigieg that he was “deeply alarmed” by reports of a proposal to use the Atlantic City International Airport, part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s campus, to house thousands of migrants.

“First of all, the Atlantic City Airport is an unacceptable place to house these people,” Drew said. “There are no services or infrastructure at the airport that could possibly support this. Logistically, it is a poor concept. Further the Atlantic City airport is surrounded by facilities critical to national security.”

When Drew pressed Buttigieg on whether the Department of Transportation was consulted on this matter, Buttigieg responded that the issue wasn't under the Federal Aviation Administration's umbrella.

Drew's concerns come as thousands of migrants continue to arrive in nearby New York City overwhelming shelters, schools and other resources. New York Mayor Eric Adams has warned that the crisis would "destroy New York City," and the cost of housing migrants in the coming years could total as much as $12 billion.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pete Buttigieg addresses flight delays, train derailments in hearing