Former Biden rival Buttigieg touts electric vehicles in visit to president’s home state

The transportation secretary says the president’s mammoth infrastructure package will benefit Delaware and the rest of America with cleaner air.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touted electric transit buses during his first visit to former political rival Joe Biden's home state. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touted electric transit buses during his first visit to former political rival Joe Biden's home state. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Two years ago he was Mayor Pete, and had just abandoned his longshot hopes of becoming President Pete.

Delaware’s Joe Biden ultimately won the Democratic nomination and the presidency. But the appeal of Pete Buttigieg, who won the Iowa primary before fading from contention, was not lost on Biden, who tapped the South Bend, Indiana mayor to become U.S. transportation secretary.

On Friday, Buttigieg made his first trip to Delaware as a Cabinet member, standing shoulder to shoulder with many of Biden’s top local Democratic allies, including U.S. Sen. Tom Carper and Gov. John  Carney. Buttigieg also participated in a flag-raising ceremony in support of Ukraine in Wilmington.

The purpose of Buttigieg’s visit was to promote Biden’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and its benefits to roads, bridges, transit, electrical vehicle charging, and more.

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Buttigieg and Delaware leaders gathered in front of three electric DART buses in the transit agency’s yard in Wilmington, located under a stretch of I-95 that is being rebuilt.

Delaware is getting its 26th electric transit bus, thanks largely to more than $9 million in previous federal grants. But Buttigieg’s office said the state is expected to receive about $186 million more from the mammoth infrastructure law to improve public transportation with more electric buses and other initiatives.

“We’re here to illustrate what President Biden’s vision for building a better America looks like,” Buttigieg told the audience. “And today we’re illustrating that with regard to some very good forthcoming news when it comes to the buses of this country.”

Buttigieg delivered remarks while flanked by Gov. John Carney (left) and U.S. Sen. Tom Carper. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

“The more people that are on buses, the less congestion, the less pollution on our roadways. But we also know that far too many buses, the majority in our country, in fact, are outdated. They have diesel engines, they contribute to emissions and pollution, and we have a chance to do something about that.”

Buttigieg also joked that he didn’t ever want to follow the wisecracking Sen. Carper to a podium again. Carper’s humorous monologue had referenced a famous rock song from the 1960s.

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“Mr. Secretary, if you haven’t picked it up, I like music,” Carper cracked. I’m tempted to tell you you can lead us all in a verse of The Who’s ‘Magic Bus,’ but we’re not going to do that.”

Noting the vehicles behind them, Carper said: “These are magic buses, and they don’t just materialize out of thin air. A lot of negotiation, a lot of legislation, a lot of good work and now a lot of implementation by this man right here.”

Delaware’s senior U.S. senator meant Buttigieg, who praised leadership by Carper and Gov. Carney for making Delaware a “forward-thinking state” in the transportation world.

Buttigieg said another initiative to be announced next will allow transit agencies to bid for even more money to “get clean buses, primarily electric buses, like those that you see right here.”

With global warming on the rise, Buttigieg said the initiatives are “going to make an enormous difference in moving forward toward where we need to be with regard to climate … So it’s not just that we’re saying it’s a good thing to do, we’re putting dollars behind it.”

Buttigieg said he realizes many people never ride a transit bus, but said clean buses still matter.

“There might be a child whose bedroom is behind one of those air conditioning units on the second floor of those homes right over there, whose life will be better because they will not become ill, because they will not be inhaling pollution because of these clean buses,” he said. “That’s the kind of difference we can make right here.”

Standing at the rear of the crowd of politicians were several employees of DART, officially known as the Delaware Transit Authority.

One was bus driver and trainer Maurice Purnell. He sometimes drives an electric bus on his route along the Del. 4 corridor south of Wilmington.

“They’re pretty good, fuel efficient,” Purnell said. “The power is quieter and smoother, and a lot of the passengers really enjoy them.”

DART driver Maurice Purnell agrees more electric buses are good for the environment. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

The fact that the Biden administration is promoting them with federal funding heartens Purnell: “It’s very good. Change the environment. I’m all for it.”

That’s the point, Buttigieg told WHYY News after his public remarks.

“What it means is cleaner air,” he said. “It means a shot at beating the climate challenge before it’s too late.”

But Buttigieg also envisions an American motor fleet that’s not powered so much by gasoline.

“The sooner that we’re driving electric vehicles, the less dependent we are on foreign oil,” Buttigieg said, and the more American jobs are created in a growing EV industry.

“I’m talking to our major auto CEOs, and they’ve already decided and seen even some of the most traditional old-fashioned companies have decided and seen that electric is the future. The question is how to make sure it comes quick enough and how to make sure it’s made in America and how to make sure that everybody gets to benefit from it.”

That means affordable non-gasoline cars, SUVs, and trucks.

“We have to move out of the era of electric vehicles being a luxury item, and that is changing,’’ Buttigieg said. “We could push it even further in that direction with some of the legislation the president’s put forward. But right now, there are more and more cars coming onto the market that actually over the long run are cheaper to own because you have less maintenance and less in fuel costs. But we’ve got to try to get that sticker price down.”

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