Biden’s infrastructure sales force knows its potholes and bridges

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WASHINGTON – As mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg grew up seeing asphalt as his enemy. As Michigan governor, Jennifer M. Granholm faced a Republican-led legislature with the intention of blocking her bigger infrastructure ambitions. As governor of Rhode Island, Gina Raimondo overcame early opposition to an infrastructure plan from moderate members of her own party.

All three are part of a group of five cabinet secretaries that President Biden has chosen to serve as administration salespeople for the U.S. Jobs Plan, which aims to inject billions of dollars into infrastructure and d other new government programs.

“Every square foot of asphalt, from a mayor’s perspective, is a square foot that you have to pay indefinitely to maintain, to resurface, to fill in potholes,” Mr. Buttigieg said, today. hui transport secretary, in a recent interview. “There were roads that saw maybe a car every few minutes and were wide enough to accommodate four cars side by side. There is a cost to maintain. “

The asphalt lessons Mr. Buttigieg learned in Indiana informed how he is trying to sell Mr. Biden’s infrastructure plan across the country today. “The point is, we’re designing for the future and asking what we want to build, instead of redoing everything we’ve done in the past,” he said. As to justifying the ambitious plan, he said: “There is nothing like being able to say, ‘This is how we dealt with it in my community’.

Along with Mr. Buttigieg and Ms. Granholm, the Secretary of Energy, and Ms. Raimondo, the Secretary of Commerce, the group includes Marcia L. Fudge, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Martin J. Walsh, the Secretary of job.

Their job is to move the infrastructure plan forward on Capitol Hill and across the country with voters. They were chosen because they head agencies that oversee the bulk of the Jobs Plan’s proposals, which covers broadband, public housing, climate change and job training, in addition to roads and bridges. .

But it was also former mayors or governors who took on the challenges at the local level that Mr. Biden now faces across the country.

In fact, they have all tried – and sometimes failed – to sell their own infrastructure plans, either to a recalcitrant legislature or to resistant members of their own party.

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As governor of Michigan, Ms Granholm brought together business and labor leaders to try to push through a billion dollar investment in state infrastructure, but failed in the face of a led legislature by Republicans. Mr Buttigieg learned the hard way that a Smart Streets program would require months of community outreach with black business owners if it did not want to be accused of contributing to gentrification. In Rhode Island, Ms Raimondo oversaw a state ranked by TBEN as having the worst infrastructure in the United States in 2019, and had to negotiate with moderate Democrats over a plan that required large-platform trucks to pay tolls. to repair crumbling bridges.

“When you work at the local level, you work in the area of ​​deadlines, budgets and completions,” said Henry Cisneros, a former mayor of San Antonio who served as housing and urban development secretary under President Bill Clinton. In Washington, he said, a discussion of an infrastructure bill can too often focus on authorizations and credits.

“When you have people who have seen it all along, people in Washington are always surprised at the difference in mindset,” he added.

Take Ms. Fudge, who was mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, from 2000 to 2008. “If I was working in my backyard, it was nothing for someone to stop and talk about what they liked or liked. did not like. the city, ”she said. “We talk to people in a different way.”

As governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011, Ms. Granholm had high ambitions to fix a state that had some of the worst roads in the country. She proposed nearly $ 1 billion for infrastructure improvements, to be paid for with debt refinanced at lower interest rates.

“Obviously, no one ever wants to raise taxes,” Ms. Granholm said. “Whoever is elected can tell you.”

In recent days, she has met with Republican lawmakers to discuss Mr Biden’s proposed 28% corporate tax rate – but also said he would be open to compromise. “We understand that we have to have a competitive rate,” Ms. Granholm said. “There is room for maneuver.”

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State infrastructure experts said the political landscape made a big change impossible.

“Her challenges were that she had complete Republican control of the legislature while she was in power,” said Mike Nystrom, executive vice president of the Michigan Infrastructure & Transportation Association. “She did things.” But, he said, “we have failed to push for a long-term funding solution.”

This defeat, coupled with the challenge of leading a state through a global recession and the bankruptcy of the auto industry, taught Ms. Granholm the importance of having a federal partner.

“States are bringing a knife to a shootout in this area,” she said, “while other countries are clearly investing in their infrastructure, in their personnel training. Michigan takes on China, who do you think will win? Having a federal partner in all of this is all. “

In Rhode Island, Ms. Raimondo received some help from the federal government when Mr. Biden, on a visit as vice president, joked that one of the bridges was so old: “Lincoln Logs has withheld that damn thing. “By pushing through her plan, she withstood a trucking association lawsuit and criticism from the business community. The first time she pitched the plan,” he just died an unceremonious death. She said.

Ms Raimondo said the momentum reflected the current challenge of persuading moderate Democrats, like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin III, to back Mr Biden’s infrastructure plan.

“It was very similar, because the legislature at the time said, ‘Yes, we have to fix our roads and our bridges; yes, we know the bridges are going to collapse, ”she said, but some officials did not want to raise taxes or tolls. “So we stayed at the table and said, ‘Give up, how would you pay for that? “”

The final version of the plan called for reduced borrowing and tolls for trucks. Marc Dunkelman, a researcher at Brown University who focuses on the architecture of American communities, said the saga showed Ms. Raimondo was “able to speak of credibility to both Elizabeth Warren and Joe Manchin.”

“It will be a real advantage,” he said.

As secretary of labor, Mr. Walsh shares the responsibility of ensuring a diverse hiring for the millions of jobs that the White House says will be generated by Mr. Biden’s plan. In Boston, where Mr. Walsh served as mayor from 2014 to 2021, a federal civil rights complaint filed against the city found that 1.2% of more than $ 2 billion in public contracts went to black or Hispanic companies. over a five-year period. Mr Walsh responded by signing an executive order allocating 25% of the city’s funding to businesses owned by people of color and women.

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This year, the city government also canceled a roughly $ 25 million project that would have rebuilt Melnea Cass Boulevard in Roxbury, after residents opposed the removal of more than 100 trees in the mostly community. black.

“I believe Secretary Walsh really wants the best,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director of LivableStreets, a transportation advocacy organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I think Pete Buttigieg really wants the best. This does not mean that they have always been right. In some cases, they were really wrong. And I hope they have learned from it. We really need them to learn from it. “

Mr Walsh acknowledged that residents called the plan “environmental racism” and said part of the problem was that he inherited a project that had been going on for a decade.

“One of the things we’re going to talk about is that as this money is approved, there are projects out of the box,” Walsh said. “This other project in Boston lasted 10 years. It’s way too long.

Vendors have their work cut out for them. But the less visible work at the local level is now generating water for their conversations with stakeholders and lawmakers.

Mr Buttigieg said he constantly referred to his leadership experience when meeting with Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where he says he had productive conversations filled with goodwill despite public criticism of the plan. ‘infrastructure. In return, lawmakers tell him about their own experiences.

“Susan Collins shared a story about a community with a memorial to the lives of fishermen who have been lost,” he said. “She talked about building a breakwater with the help of federal funds that has saved a lot of lives. She explains why she knows these things are important to her community.

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