Transportation secretary can be the foreign policy job Mayor Pete always wanted

  • Soon-to-be Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg famously speaks six (or is it eight?) languages.
  • Proficiency in French, Spanish, and Italian could come in surprisingly handy at DOT, since the US is so much worse at building cost-effective infrastructure projects than France, Spain and Italy are.
  • The US has not done a good job of learning from our foreign peers. And when we do look abroad, we tend to look to English-speaking Britain and Canada — which also have unusually high costs, maybe because of our shared common-law tradition.
  • A transportation secretary who looks abroad to learn how they build subways (and highways!) so much more cheaply in Europe could do a lot to improve transportation here in America.
  • Improving our efficiency is especially important at a time when COVID is battering transportation agency finances all over the country.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Mayor Pete Buttigieg was reported to desire the job of UN Ambassador in the Biden administration, a role that would have given him foreign policy experience. Instead, Buttigieg will be nominated to be Secretary of Transportation.

This will sound strange to say, but there is a good way for Buttigieg to turn this into a foreign policy job. There are few high-level jobs in US government where you can make better use of Italian proficiency than at DOT.

US transportation agencies are woefully inefficient, especially when it comes to capital projects. We pay multiples of what other rich countries do for the same kind of infrastructure, and the US stubbornly refuses to learn best practices from our betters in this space like France, Spain and Italy. (Yes, even Italy, not exactly a notable name in good governance, builds subway lines for about a fifth what they cost in the US.)

And now, due to COVID, US transportation agencies face a severe financial crunch, and they need to learn from Europe and shed their inefficiency now more than ever. Has there ever been a better time to put an ex-McKinsey consultant who speaks a variety of Romance languages in charge at the agency, to lead DOT to learn what these countries are doing right and build their best practices home, so we can build back better?

The US needs to learn how to build more efficiently

Our cost problem most famously applies to subways, but you see it in other kinds of projects too. Our urban highway tunnel projects, like the Alaskan Way tunnel in Seattle and the proposed underground Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, cost multiples per mile compared to what Madrid paid to bury much of its M-30 beltway underground. Our high costs extend even to projects that are just glorified buildings: the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is somehow preparing to spend $10 billion to replace a bus station.

A few years ago, Congress directed the Government Accountability Office to look into why our infrastructure projects are so much more expensive than other countries' projects. The GAO eventually produced a report in 2019 (seven months after the deadline Congress had set) and said it wasn't really able to answer the question.

Congress had directed GAO to compare US costs to countries including Spain and Italy, but GAO investigators instead compared US projects to projects in Canada, Australia and Great Britain. It's useful that officials in those countries speak English and project documents and news articles associated with infrastructure in those countries are in English, but English-speaking countries around the world tend to have unusually high construction costs — a phenomenon that some researchers attribute to the difficulty of advancing complex projects under our shared system of common law.

Bringing our costs down is likely to start with something extremely basic: talking to Spaniards and Italians (and the French) and figuring out what they're doing differently from what we are doing.

The lack of international communication in this area has been one of my biggest pet peeves in years of reporting on the subject. I think a lot of it is frankly driven by the people with the subject matter knowledge in foreign countries literally not speaking the same language as the American bureaucrats, officials, and contractors who need to learn from them. And as a reporter, it's not like I could easily call up an Italian transportation official and pick his or her brain, either.

If he becomes Transportation Secretary, Buttigieg should use his multilingual skills and start an international dialogue with our peers that are better than us at infrastructure. I don't expect him to join all the meetings hashing out cross-country differences in planning requirements and engineering practices and how many people you need to run a tunnel-boring machine — those conversations should be held at the staff level, with interpreters as necessary — but as secretary he can and should open new lines of communication with the foreign governments that have things to teach us.

The COVID opportunity

The aftermath of the COVID recession is going to provide a moment of unusual leverage for the Department of Transportation. One of the financially hardest-hit pieces of our state and local government apparatus due to the COVID crisis is transportation, due to weak gas tax revenue, massively lower transit ridership, and deserted airports. Agencies responsible for transportation are going to need a lot of financial assistance from the federal government. They're also going to need to find ways to do more with less money.

The good news is these agencies have historically been cost-inefficient by international standards (even on the operating side, where our staffing levels on trains exceed our foreign peers') so there is room to cut costs by adopting better practices, not just by imposing painful cuts on users.

DOT can encourage those reforms by tying the federal aid these agencies will need to weather the storm without drastic service cuts to the adoption of a set of efficient changes. But first, Buttigieg and his new agency need to work with foreign officials to figure out what those reforms should even be. That should be a project of global scale, even at this domestic agency.

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