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On Iowa tour promoting federal investments, Pete Buttigieg lambastes anti-LGTBQ laws in state
Transportation secretary tours Cedar Rapids airport to see infrastructure dollars at work
CEDAR RAPIDS — Ahead of what airlines say could be the busiest Memorial Day weekend for travel since before the pandemic, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stopped at The Eastern Iowa Airport to highlight federal investments he said will make for a better passenger experience and support job growth.
He also stopped in Dubuque on Thursday to see how the city is using federal infrastructure funding to remove an at-grade crossing and build a railroad overpass in the city.
Buttigieg, who made history as the first openly gay man to launch a competitive campaign for president, also criticized Republican state lawmakers for misplaced priorities in passing legislation targeting LGBTQ Iowans.
Asked about state legislatures in red states — including Iowa — passing a number of anti-LGBTQ bills, Buttigieg said states trying to rollback LGBTQ rights aren't “helping anybody.”
He said the Biden administration is in Cedar Rapids trying to make life easier for airline passengers, while in Des Moines “they're making life harder for LGBTQ high schoolers.”
“Of all the things you could do with the power and the trust and the resources put in your hands as an elected official, why wouldn’t you be concentrating more on building roads and bridges and fixing up airports, and making insulin more affordable, and helping veterans and all the other things we’re doing as an administration?” Buttigieg said to applause.
“We’re going to continue focusing on the work we can do — by the way, often on a bipartisan basis — that’s making people better off and delivering concrete results.”
Calling the Midwest the “cradle” of aviation innovation in the world, Buttigieg said the nation has been “slipping” through a lack of investment over decades.
“Since the 1980s, we have been needing to do more,” whether it’s our airports, our roads and bridges, our transit rail and ports,“ he said. ”And thanks to President (Joe) Biden and the bipartisan leaders from both sides of the aisle … we’re doing it.“
Buttigieg toured the fourth and final phase of the Cedar Rapids airport’s terminal modernization to see federal infrastructure dollars at work.
The $120.9 million project is funded in part by a $20 million grant made possible by the bipartisan infrastructure law championed and signed into law by Biden. Airport officials also received a $28 million state grant from the Iowa commercial aviation fund.
The $68 million fourth phase includes remodeling the rest of the terminal, adding 32,000 square feet and four additional jet bridges, building a larger patio with a license to serve alcohol and adding a pet relief area and a sensory room for people overstimulated by travel.
Construction, which began in early March, is estimated to take 18 to 24 months.
When completed, the work will improve travel and passenger amenities, expand concourse space to accommodate larger planes and position the airport to capitalize on growing demand and add flights, Buttigieg, city and airport officials said.
The 2021 Infrastructure law put aside $25 billion for airports to address repair and maintenance backlogs, reduce congestion and emissions near ports and airports, and drive electrification and other low-carbon technologies.
This was Buttigieg’s first trip to Iowa as the secretary of transportation, according to a Department of Transportation staffer. Buttigieg won the 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses.
“What we see here brings together a lot of the different things that we are trying to support,” Buttigieg said. “Making sure that, of course, we have the support for economic growth, a better passenger experience.”
The new law provides more funding for terminal work for airports to upgrade bathrooms and concourse, and provide for quicker, more efficient security screening and baggage claim process, Buttigieg said.
“What we’ve seen in the aviation sector is it’s come roaring back faster than anybody thought,” he said. “It’s great news. But it’s meant, obviously, a lot of stress on the system.“
Amid an ongoing air traffic controller shortage that's been partly to blame for disruptions across the system, Buttigieg said the transportation department continues to hire and train controllers even as key facilities remain below targets.
What funding means for Cedar Rapids
Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O’Donnell said aviation and transportation long have been integral to Cedar Rapids success, both past and present.
She noted the city’s “deep-rooted connection” to aviation history, mentioning that brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright — the first two men to fly an airplane — lived in Cedar Rapids when they were young.
O’Donnell also mentioned the communications technology developed at what is now Collins Aerospace that connected NASA engineers with Apollo 11 astronauts on their historic lunar mission.
“Cedar Rapids’ economic strength relies heavily on this airport,” O’Donnell said. “The significant investment that we mark today will not only benefit the passengers, but also contribute to the flourishing commerce and certainly workforce development of our city.”
From it’s humble beginnings 75 years ago with a farmhouse serving as its terminal, “our airport has evolved today into a facility we can all take pride in,” O’Donnell said.
Airport commission chairman Duane Smith said the current construction will create an estimated 450 jobs, “which also contributes to our vibrant economy.”
Rick Peterson, a union laborer working on the terminal project, praised the federal investment “that helps me support my family … and give me a little peace of mind.”
Peterson said the large influx of dollars for large-scale public works projects means “construction workers like me and the next generation” no longer have worry about when and where their next job will pop up.
Who from Iowa voted for the infrastructure law?
Iowa State Auditor Rob Sand thanked former Iowa U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, a Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, who were the only members of Iowa's congressional delegation that voted for the infrastructure bill.
“Kudos to the two of them for looking at this package, understanding how great the need in the United States was for infrastructure spending and making the investment,” Sand said.
Iowa Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and Reps. Randy Feenstra, Ashley Hinson and Mariannette Miller-Meeks voted against the infrastructure bill.
“When you’re in a rural state like Iowa, your airports are your lifelines … your connections to everywhere else,” Sand said. “And when you have just a handful of them in your state, everything that’s happening at every single one of them is important to the entire state.”
Tower Terrace Road funding
For the third year in a row, the Tower Terrace Road project across the north side of the Cedar Rapids metro area was not awarded a $25 million federal grant that would exponentially speed progress on the massive infrastructure project.
Buttigieg last summer announced 166 projects across the country received more than $2.2 billion from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity — or RAISE — program.
The Tower Terrace Road project, which aims to provide a four-lane road connecting Interstate 380 to Highway 13, was not among them.
Asked about the prospects of the project being funded this year, Buttigieg said DOT officials often work with unsuccessful applicants “on how to come back even strong next year.” But he did not say what the likelihood may be of funding.
Without the grant, the project is estimated to be completed in 2045, The Gazette previously reported.
“It’s been since the Eisenhower administration that we were putting this level of funding in roads, bridges, transit — you name it,” Buttigieg said. “And what that means is a lot of needs have built up over the years. And we’re not going to be able to do it all in one year, or even in five.
“But, over the five-year life of this bill, we’re going to be doing more than every before. I’m excited to say ‘yes’ more than we’ve ever been able to do.”
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