CEO Christina Cassotis (left) talks about development with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (black mask) at Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

Secretary Pete Buttigieg Talks Infrastructure at PIT

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg came to Pittsburgh to talk about the region’s infrastructure needs, but Winnie, Doc and Wilbur had other ideas.

After spending the a day in the region, the transportation chief got an unexpected greeting at Pittsburgh International Airport from Winnie and Doc—a lab/whippet mix and Doberman, respectively, in the PIT PAWS therapy dog program—and Wilbur (as in Wright), one of the airport’s autonomous UV-enhanced floor scrubbers.

Buttigieg got down on one knee to greet the pups on the way to his gate and then marveled as Wilbur cleaned the floors next to them.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is greeted by Winnie, a lab/whippet mix that is part of the PIT PAWS therapy dog program. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

During his visit, the secretary also tackled weightier issues, of course, including learning about PIT’s billion-dollar Terminal Modernization Program. He was accompanied at the airport by CEO Christina Cassotis, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and PennDOT Secretary Yassmin Gramian.

Between meetings, Buttigieg spoke with Blue Sky News about his visit, including how airports fit into the infrastructure bill.

Bob Kerlik: Mr. Secretary, tell me why you came to Pittsburgh today?

Pete Buttigieg: Pittsburgh represents so much of what’s at stake with our infrastructure issues as a country, the problems and the solutions. We saw a lot of problems—on the Ohio River, we saw the McKees [Rocks] Bridge has mesh set up to catch pieces of concrete that might be falling off. But we’ve also seen the amazing innovation that’s going on in this city, whether we’re talking about the airport, whether we’re talking about the multimodal projects that are downtown. So what we’ve got to do is take care of what we have and invest in the future. That’s what the American Jobs Plan is intending to do.

BK: How do you see aviation and airports fitting into the infrastructure bill?

PB: You can’t always see it or feel it, but the national airspace is a very important part of America’s infrastructure and really where that hits home is, of course, in facilities like Pittsburgh International Airport. This is a vital economic engine, creating jobs, connecting people to loved ones, and we need to make sure that we’re supporting our airports as they grow and prepare for the future.

You know, the truth is a lot of other countries have created airports that are the envy of the world. The president and I and a lot of us, I think, want American airports to be the envy of the world.

BK: That being said, how do you feel about the state of the nation’s airports?

PB: Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do. The truth is if we want to have the best airports in the world, we’ve got to invest. Communities are making tough choices to raise revenue often. The federal government should be as well and that’s why the American Jobs Plan includes billions of dollars to upgrade and improve American airports in communities of all sizes, from our big cities, where they can be global engines of growth, to small communities, where they are a lifeline and a connection to the outside world.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (left) speaks with PIT CEO Christina Cassotis on the people mover between terminals at Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)

BK: As you know, we are embarking on a billion-dollar terminal project here in Pittsburgh that’s going to generate thousands of jobs. How would projects like this one fit into the infrastructure bill?

PB: Well, this is absolutely part of the vision. When the president says that we ought to have the best infrastructure in the world, we’re thinking about preparing the assets of the future like what the new terminal here in Pittsburgh is going to represent. So I’m going to be excited to watch this project unfold and we do think this is the kind of thing that could see a real tailwind, let’s say, coming from good federal policy.

BK: What’s the best thing you’ve seen in Pittsburgh so far?

PB: I had a pretty good burger in between things but I don’t know if that was officially part of my visit. The biggest thing that is just inspiring to see here, and it reminds me of home, is the way you have a community with a very proud industrial tradition. Updating that tradition for the future, doing great work—yes, around manufacturing and energy—but also around internet-based businesses, education and medicine, seeing that come together, being true to that tradition of the past and looking to the future, it’s inspiring. And just the view up at the top of the Mon Incline was pretty cool too.

[Editor’s note: The burger was from Burgatory.]

BK: Last question for you. We’re building a microgrid here and we’ll be the first airport in the country to be completely powered on our own. It’s going to be nearly 10,000 solar panels and five natural gas generators. How important is sustainability in 21st century infrastructure?

PB: I’m really glad to see the airport being intentional about energy, and we’ve got to be doing that across the board. One of things we’re seeing is that lots of different areas connect, and so I work a lot with my counterpart, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, because we know, for example, that electric vehicles are only going to be as clean as the power that goes into them. They’re only to be as effective as the grid that supports them. And so seeing the microgrid effort and the real forward-thinking approaches to energy that are right here at the airport is an example that I think is really impressive.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and PIT CEO Christina Cassotis walk with Wilbur, one of four autonomous, UV-enhanced floor scrubbers patrolling Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Photo by Evan Dougherty)

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