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EV infrastructure is a 'public-private partnership': Transportation Secretary Buttigieg

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg sits down with Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer to discuss airport renovations amid shocks to travel demand, rising gas prices, and President Biden's EV infrastructure plan.

Video Transcript

- Well, let's get to the latest down in Washington, DC. Our very own Andy Serwer, Yahoo Finance Editor in Chief, just spoke with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. And he's here now to tell us about that. And, Andy, there's so much to talk to him about because-- where did you start? The airlines, the latest down in DC, the policy? Tell us about your conversations.

ANDY SERWER: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I mean, airlines, we talked about airlines. We talked about airports. We talked about gas prices, Seana. We talked about EVs. Yes, we talked about Tesla. We talked about marriage equality, a lot of stuff. Here's what he had to say. Let's take a listen.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, I think any time you sell a ticket and collect revenue in exchange for a promise to get somebody from point A to point B, you need to be prepared to actually do that. And that's a conversation we've been pressing the airlines a lot on these last few weeks. Look, it is great news that demand has returned, that passengers have both the income and the inclination to get back in the skies after everything that our country has been through and that the aviation sector has been through.

But now that they are back, it's very important that the airlines and that the system are prepared to get them where they need to be. Now, I'll tell you-- since I gathered airline leaders together shortly after the Memorial Day travel weekend, where we saw a really unacceptable level of cancellations and delays, we've seen a lot of steps that have been underway, including accelerated work to recruit and train pilots; improved pay for aviation crews, which I think is a very obvious and important way to help deal with the perceived shortages in staffing; more resources going into customer service.

And I think that those steps have made a difference. Our last couple of weekends, we've seen the cancellation rate go back below 2%, which is more in line with what you've seen historically. But there's still a lot of work to do. And we'll do everything that we can to help as a department. We'll look to the airlines to do the right thing and collaborate with them there. And when and if they don't do the right thing, that's what our enforcement powers are for. And we'll use those too when and if it's appropriate.

ANDY SERWER: Another long-term effort you announced recently is the billion dollars in infrastructure money to improve airport terminals, which sounds great. We're all for it. But is it enough money, Mr. Secretary? Because, you know, the improvements at LaGuardia alone, for instance, $8 billion range. So talk to us about this endeavor, please.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Well, there's always going to be a desire for more. But what we have here overall in the context of the infrastructure law that the president led that Congress passed on a bipartisan basis, we have more to work with than we have in a very long time. And we're putting it to use right away. And it's going to airports-- big and small.

I was in Los Angeles where we're putting $50 million toward a road improvement, if anybody's ever been in that notorious horseshoe, where you drop people off and then might have to spend another half hour just getting back out of there, depending what terminal you drop them at. We're going to be able to improve that all the way through to a place like Chamberlain, South Dakota.

They got a general aviation terminal that's a mobile home right now. And we're helping them build a more permanent facility and everything in between. These improvements are going to make a big difference for the passenger experience. And they're coming [AUDIO OUT] more what I would call back of house, supporting improvements to the tarmac, the runway, the apron, or indeed the air traffic control tower, where we've got fantastic FAA employees working under challenging circumstances sometimes in very old and dilapidated structures. All of that improves thanks to the resources that we have under this congressional act and the other resources we're putting to work.

ANDY SERWER: I think you, yourself, noted, Mr. Secretary, that none of our airports in the United States are in the top 25 world airports. So you've got that on the one hand. The delays, OK, it's getting better. Is there a holistic problem here that you're looking to resolve?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Look, we're the country that ushered in the aviation age. We ought to have the best when it comes to our airlines and our airports. We ought to be the pride of the world. And they ought to be racing to catch up with us. Unfortunately, in this sector and most of our transportation in the country, decades of underinvestment have taken their toll.

But now, we're in a position to change that. And after spending so much of last year making the case for more infrastructure dollars, now we're out there putting them to work. And the other thing that's really exciting about this is that even while it takes a while sometimes for the project to be completed, the terminal to be finished, the upgrade to be done, right away, you're seeing the job opportunities associated with that.

I was just with a group of apprentices who were being trained in the building trades, and they know because of all this airport and other work up ahead that they not only have a job they're working at the moment, but a whole career ahead of them in good paying work. And we're excited about what that means too.

ANDY SERWER: Another facet of transportation, let's move on to gas, EVs, cars, gas prices. We've had 35 days now of declines. Your colleague of the state department, Amos Hochstein, recently said gas could go below $4 a gallon on average. Do you agree?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Yeah, we're seeing it below $4 in many-- I think in most states now. So it's gone down markedly. It's still high, though. We're under no illusions about the pain that everybody is feeling at the pump. It's why we're continuing to work to do what we can, being realistic, of course, about how much this is under the control of any American policymaker. But there are steps you can take, a lot of steps the president has taken.

And then for the long run, making sure we double down on domestic, clean energy production-- I think the president's being about that right now-- and creating more options for families and for drives by making cheaper and easier to have an EV.

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, let's talk about EVs. Because you're overseeing the effort to have 500,000 public EV charging stations around the country by 2030. How is that going from the government side? And also with a public private partnership, are you confident that the overall EV sector is on pace to shoulder the load as more and more people switch over from internal combustion engines?

PETE BUTTIGIEG: We're hard at work on this. And we are confident that America is up to the task. But it's going to take a lot. And we're talking about major changes in the infrastructure required to support vehicles. And, you know, the infrastructure that came about over decades for gas vehicles is-- we just don't have time to do it at that organic pace, which is why we're making the investments that we're making right now to get to the president's goal of half a million chargers by the end of this decade.

As you mentioned, it's a public private partnership. We're not envisioning most or even many of these being government-owned-and-operated chargers. But we do see a lot of areas where it's not yet profitable to have a charger put in by the private sector penciling out. Or we need to make sure that we buy down the difference to support a nationwide network so that you're always confident when you go on a road trip that you can get a charge when you need it.

We are within days of the deadline for states to deliver their plans state by state for how they're going to use the first year's worth of formula funding. We got $1 billion headed their way. And I'm really interested to see what the states are going to come up with. Because in all humility, even though we've got a lot of expertise-- we've teamed up with the Department of Energy for a lot of best practices. We're setting the standards for EV chargers-- no one really knows a perfect solution on this.

And I think each state is going to come with a slightly different approach. And we're going to learn a lot from that as we go.

ANDY SERWER: That's Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. And you guys-- a lot of stuff-- I mean, the big purview, you sometimes don't think about, well, what does the transportation secretary really do? But, you know, there's a revolution going on right now when it comes to transportation and electricity-- number one. And number two, we've got a mess going on at the nation's, the world's airports. So he has a lot on his plate.

- He does, and not just airports airlines. And we talked to Ro Khanna California Congressman earlier, who was very critical of the Biden administration and in particular Pete Buttigieg and the transportation administration in terms of how they have not held airlines feet to the fire in terms of the flight cancellations, the baggage losses. Did he get into that at all about how they have not fined, punished the airlines like they do in Europe, for example?

ANDY SERWER: Yeah, he did get into that, Dave. And there's more to this interview--

- Yeah.

ANDY SERWER: --that we can be-- we'll be showing you guys. But another point that's sort of adjacent to that and to give that some context is that, of course, they also got billions and billions of during COVID, right, to further their operations and to support them. So they sort of owe the government some cooperation here and--

- Yeah, some accountability at least.

ANDY SERWER: You know, and I think the transportation secretary said it's great, by the way, that demand has rebounded. So it's-- in a way, it's a good problem. But it's a mess.