U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg made his first visit to a U.S. port Thursday since taking office, touring the Port of Baltimore where he promoted President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure package.
The deal has the support of Democrats and some Republicans and includes about $550 billion in new spending on highways, bridges, transit, broadband, water systems and other public works projects. Buttigieg said the plan is a “once in a generation opportunity” with the potential to boost the work happening in Baltimore and elsewhere.
“You see how much more that could be done if the funding were there,” Buttigieg remarked after touring Seagirt Marine Terminal, the port’s bustling container terminal, and Dundalk Marine Terminal, the port’s largest general cargo facility.
Buttigieg’s arrival in Baltimore came on the heels of a Senate vote Wednesday night to begin work on the national infrastructure plan. The bipartisan voted signaled interest among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to consider the infrastructure package. Biden has made the deal his top priority.
The secretary was joined by a bipartisan group for the Thursday tour including Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Democratic Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott. An enthusiastic Bill Doyle, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, led the tour telling the group the port has been busier than ever during the coronavirus pandemic.
“What’s everyone doing at home?” Doyle said. “They’re ordering from Amazon.”
“Thanks for keeping the U.S. afloat,” Buttigieg quipped later.
The group also discussed an ongoing dredging project, paid for by state money, one of several upgrades in the works for Seagirt in advance of the expansion of the Howard Street Tunnel, a move that will dramatically increase the port’s cargo capacity.
Joined by U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin for a press conference following the tour, Buttigieg touted a $17 billion allocation within the infrastructure bill to upgrade the nation’s ports and waterways. That funding will be used to increase the volume of goods ports can handle and make the nation more economically competitive for years to come, he said.
“Right here, we see examples of what’s possible,” he said.
Van Hollen said the package will help Baltimore and other ports address dock congestion from significant increases of cargo volume in recent years. Truck drivers have protested terminal conditions outside Seagirt twice in recent years.
The state-owned Port of Baltimore needs more than $250 million to modernize, Maryland Transportation Secretary Greg Slater said Monday during the Greater Baltimore Committee’s virtual Transportation and Infrastructure Summit.
Slater, who attended Thursday’s tour but did not speak, said earlier this week there is a $7 billion maintenance backlog across the state’s transportation network, including the port, highways, transit, airports and other systems. Those needs would be first in line for any federal funding Maryland receives from the deal, he said.
Hogan called the Port of Baltimore a “shining example of world class infrastructure,” and pleaded with lawmakers to work cooperatively across the aisle to get the infrastructure bill passed.
“Although we come from different parties and different levels of government, we are all united in our commitment to bipartisan action,” Hogan said.
If passed, the infrastructure package also will invest $1 billion into reconnecting communities divided by transportation infrastructure, such as the “Highway to Nowhere,” the sunken, 1.2-mile section of U.S. 40 that displaced many Black families when it was built through West Baltimore.
Both Van Hollen and Scott noted the damage done to West Baltimore by the project with Scott calling it the “poster child for racial highways to nowhere.”
How the federal infrastructure package will be funded remains to be determined. Democrats rejected a plan to bring in money by hiking the gas tax drivers pay at the pump, and Republicans dashed a plan to boost the IRS to go after tax scofflaws.
The five-year spending package may be paid for by tapping $205 billion in unspent COVID-19 relief aid and $53 billion in unemployment insurance aid some states have halted. It also relies on economic growth to bring in $56 billion, and other measures.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.