Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg discussed the Biden administration’s efforts to fund rail safety following the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle push him to address the disaster.
Local and state authorities evacuated all residents within one mile of the crash and started a controlled burn of the volatile chemicals to decrease the risk of an explosion. Vinyl chloride, a carcinogen used to manufacture PVC, was released from five train cars in the form of massive plumes of dark smoke visible throughout eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
Buttigieg said on social media Tuesday evening that he “wanted to share” rail safety efforts from the administration “in the wake of the East Palestine derailment and its impact on hundreds of residents.” He mentioned “historic investments on rail safety” through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, a piece of legislation signed in November 2021 by President Joe Biden.
Among the efforts cited by Buttigieg included $120 million issued last summer to improve railway safety, $32.4 million to strengthen local hazardous material incident responses, and $3 billion for the Railroad Crossing Elimination Program. “In too many communities across America, outdated railroad crossings are unsafe, result in lengthy wait times, and can even create significant delays in our supply chains,” Buttigieg said in a statement about the initiative. “We can improve rail crossings and help people and goods get where they need to go more safely.”
Buttigieg also said the administration has been “constrained” on rail safety as a result of a “braking rule withdrawn by the Trump administration in 2018 because of a law passed by Congress in 2015.” He added that he is “always ready to work with Congress” on furthering or restoring “capacity to address rail safety issues” at his agency.
The remarks came after several Republicans and Democrats, including Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), pushed Buttigieg for “direct action” and criticized other senior officials for their response to the train derailment. Buttigieg nevertheless appeared at the National Association of Counties Conference on Monday to discuss matters such as racial equity in the construction sector, even as he failed to mention the crisis. Buttigieg finally broke his silence through another social media post on Monday, which promised that he is “concerned about the impacts” of the derailment on local families “in the ten days since their lives were upended through no fault of their own.”
Buttigieg, who served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, before gaining a national profile by running for the Democratic presidential nomination, has been the subject of multiple controversies during his service at the Transportation Department. The official took months of paid leave last year after he adopted twins, even as the supply chain crisis dampened the economy and worsened inflationary pressures. Buttigieg likewise vacationed in Portugal as rail workers were preparing to strike at the end of last year.
He also faced criticism for the system outage at the Federal Aviation Administration, which caused all flights nationwide to be grounded for several hours last month, as well as the administration’s handling of the Chinese surveillance balloon that was permitted to traverse the entire continental United States. One analysis from The Daily Wire noted that the Transportation Department has prioritized “institutionalizing equity” at the agency under Buttigieg’s tenure.