By summer 2021, it appeared Christmas was canceled. The nation’s largest ports were reporting record volumes of imported containers stuffed with toys, kitchen supplies, office chairs and so on. At some of these ports, most notably the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, dozens of vessels would soon park offshore, waiting to be unloaded.
It turned out to be the first of a number of transportation snafus that would test Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He’s among President Joe Biden’s most prominent Cabinet members, a past and potential future presidential candidate whose meteoric rise in the Democratic Party saw his career elevated from small-town mayor to the nation’s top transportation official within a few years.
Buttigieg’s profile, and possible future aspirations for higher office, have turned him into arguably the most scrutinized leader at the Department of Transportation in its six-decade history. His handling of America’s port crisis offers the perfect window into evaluating his time at the helm. The American public’s penchant for ordering tons of stuff online — particularly during 2021 — could be blamed for much of this backlog. But so too could the nation’s aging port and terminal infrastructure, a problem Buttigieg could more directly address.
But reviews of his handling of the crisis — one that can be reasonably looked back upon with a more complete understanding — were mixed.
Cargo vessels await unloading off the coast of Southern California during the supply chain crisis. Two port officials told FreightWaves they were in regular communication with the Department of Transportation on how to clear their respective backlogs. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Gene Seroka, executive director at the Port of Los Angeles, had some of the most positive experiences. He said he spent time on the phone with Transportation Department experts daily at the height of the shipping crisis and praised the DOT’s support in enacting a penalty against companies that left their containers sitting in Southern California for weeks as particularly helpful.
“It was like I had cabinet members on speed dial again,” Seroka said, noting that the previous administration was comparatively hands off. “It was just amazing how folks hit the ground running. They engaged with us, they returned our phone calls when we went to introduce ourselves. It was just amazing.”
Seroka said he’s met with Buttigieg a half-dozen times since he took the role of transportation secretary. At its peak in October, more than 100 ships were waiting outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, luring international media attention.
Reporters were less likely to flock to the ports of Savannah, Georgia, Oakland, California, or New York-New Jersey, despite each of those being major entry and exit points for cargo. Those involved in those regional hubs weren’t as jazzed about Buttigieg’s performance, but did note points where they found his department to be helpful.
Georgia Ports Authority Executive Director Griff Lynch said he was part of a weekly call with “key players from across the supply chain, whether it be ports, railroads, beneficial cargo owners.”
Lynch also said the administration was quick to provide cash for “pop-up terminals” in 2021 that helped the unprecedented volume of goods flow more quickly. Like Seroka, he had good experiences with port envoy John Picari, who the White House appointed to the role in August 2021.
But, as port insiders noted, problems were alleviated by a reduction in consumer goods purchasing more than by any government intervention.
“I hear a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, we’re in good shape now. Everything is going fine now,’” Lynch told FreightWaves. “Well, the volume dropped. That’s why everything’s fine. So what are we actually doing to make it better for the next time around?”
The nine largest U.S. container ports by twenty-foot equivalent unit volume. (FreightWaves SONAR)
Of course, the port backup is not the only crisis Buttigieg has had to deal with, nor is he the only one at the department working to handle them. He’s faced sharp criticism — even calls to resign — over his handling of unusually bad performance from passenger airlines in 2022 and this year’s Norfolk Southern derailment, which led to the evacuation of an entire Ohio village as toxic chemicals burned off, to name a few.
The criticism, much of which has originated from conservative or progressive thought leaders and politicos, has centered mostly on a sense that he has been slow, or entirely unresponsive, to these crises.
“I won’t say he’s the best secretary ever, but he’s definitely doing a better job than many,” Mortimer Downey, who served as deputy secretary of transportation in former President Bill Clinton’s administration and briefly served as acting secretary during former President George W. Bush’s early days in office, told FreightWaves.
“He does understand something that some secretaries have not understood, which is when everything is in a disaster mode, you don’t necessarily have to be there,” Downey said in regard to the most recent criticism around Buttigieg’s slow response to the Norfolk Southern derailment. “It’s kind of a distraction to have you there and leaves the impression that you’re somehow in the cause of whatever it is. But a little more early sympathy for the victims probably would have helped.”
A Norfolk Southern locomotive hauls cars through the U.S. Critics on the left and right said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg did not respond quickly enough to the Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern derailment in Ohio. More recently, the Department of Transportation said Buttigieg pressed rail executives to participate in a confidential reporting system for employees on safety issues. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)
Perhaps the biggest part of Buttigieg’s portfolio is helping with the efficient allocation of the massive infrastructure spending package signed into law by Biden. At the ports, there was a sense of approval for how Buttigieg’s department had handled that, though there was more caution over giving “Mayor Pete” too much credit for how the ports overcame the litany of challenges they faced at the height of the pandemic.
At the Port of Oakland, for example, Robert Bernardo, the director of communications, praised the Department of Agriculture for funding the port’s pop-up yards. These aimed to create more space at the congested port. (The department provided similar funding for Washington’s ports of Seattle and Tacoma.)
“With regards to the DOT’s response to the recent supply chain crisis, I cannot speak for their efforts to ease shipping congestion,” Bernardo wrote in an email to FreightWaves. “What I can tell you is how they have helped the Port of Oakland on future infrastructure projects,” including $36.6 million from the DOT to fund clean air upgrades.
Anne Strauss-Wieder, director of freight planning at the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, said the federal government “plays a very crucial role” in times of supply chain disruptions. However, she credited the area’s previous experience with disruptive events, such as Hurricane Sandy and 9/11, as a key reason why the massive complex did not experience the same sort of backlogs as other ones.
Billions in infrastructure funding
Today’s DOT isn’t designed to quickly hop on major issues. Jean-Paul Rodrigue, professor at Hofstra University and a widely cited researcher on logistics, said the department simply lacked “the tools to intervene” when it came to the supply chain crisis.
“The surge was basically unexpected by many, and overall it took some time to resolve itself,” Rodrigue said. “The DOT could not have done pretty much anything significant to solve this.”
Instead, experts said Buttigieg’s main role as head of DOT is to break up red tape to get its 11 agencies working together more closely, and get money where it needs to go.
“I see a lot of thinking across agencies that I haven’t seen before and that requires cooperation,” civil engineer Maria Lehman, who is the director of U.S. infrastructure for engineering firm GHD, told FreightWaves. “I mean, you can be ‘busy’ and not return calls.”
The DOT is very good at one other thing in particular: providing fistfuls of cash. The fistfuls are, recently, unusually large; the Biden administration said in November that it had announced more than $185 billion in funding for more than 6,900 projects across the U.S. as part of its Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. Indeed, New York Magazine called Buttigieg a “D.C. power broker” in an article last year.
Lehman said Buttigieg’s DOT has been successful in getting those bucks to communities. As one can well imagine, sometimes that cash gets caught up in red tape. (Note: Lehman is the vice chair of the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council.)
A container ship arrives at the Port of Savannah. (Shutterstock)
However, officials in some states say that their grant money has remained tied up. Lynch says his efforts to receive money through a Port Infrastructure Development Grant have been greatly delayed amid attempts to secure an environmental permit.
The DOT’s press team declined to make Buttigieg available for a phone interview but noted the department’s wins in an emailed statement to FreightWaves:
“Secretary Buttigieg and the team at this Department have and will continue to focus on getting results — including the successful resolution of a backlog of ships at our ports, helping return over a billion dollars in refunds to air passengers, securing new requirements for airlines to cover expenses for stranded passengers, assisting the NTSB investigation on the ground in East Palestine, pressing Congress for higher fines on railroads, getting railroads to commit to close call reporting, and of course overseeing historic investments to improve our nation’s infrastructure.”
Unfortunately, the American public doesn’t know much about Buttigieg breaking up red tape or funding new pipelines
Such investments will likely be appreciated in the coming years as projects are completed. But they don’t mean much for Buttigieg in the short term.
“Things don’t happen overnight anymore,” Republican strategist Glen Bolger, co-founder of Public Opinion Strategies, told FreightWaves. “You pass a bill and start on projects. Years ago, things would move relatively quickly, but there is so much red tape that it takes so long to do anything that people don’t see the impacts of this stuff for many, many years. It could be decades before this spending comes to fruition.”
A Southwest plane departs from John Wayne Airport in Irvine, California. A Department of Transportation spokesperson said Buttigieg helped instill policies at some of the largest U.S. airlines to guarantee meals and hotel stays in the case of a canceled flight. (Shutterstock)
As he’s under the microscope, political strategists believe the barrage of bad news surrounding the transportation industry — and Buttigieg’s response to those crises — could hamper any future bid for higher office. In any case, his handling of transportation issues will be front and center for both allies and critics moving forward.
“For whatever reason, all of the areas where we’ve had major, major crises over the first two years of the Biden administration seem to continue to sort of fall into his purview,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, president of political consultancy Potomac Strategy Group, told FreightWaves.
“Obviously, you can’t control everything,” Mackowiak said. “What you can control, though, is your response to a crisis. In that regard, he’s underperformed consistently.”
Meanwhile, two new crises are brewing that could hamper America’s supply chain that neither Biden nor Buttigieg have extensively spoken out on. Both have the potential of hampering the administration’s reputation.
One is a looming Teamsters strike of 350,000 UPS workers that could result in the massive package handler closing its doors by Aug. 1. The other is an expired contract among 22,000 workers at West Coast ports, which handle much of our imports and exports.
In Newark, New Jersey, Strauss-Wieder said she’s pleased that the Biden administration is keen on investing in future supply chain projects. In Strauss-Wieder’s decades of freight planning experience, the real work surrounding a crisis involves what comes next to make one’s system more resilient for the next meltdown.
“When you look at any disruptive event, what’s important is what comes after,” Strauss-Wieder said.
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