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Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visits Eastern Iowa to tour projects, talk infrastructure

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KWWL)- U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg was in Eastern Iowa on Thursday to check on infrastructure projects in Dubuque and Cedar Rapids. 

Buttigieg joined Cedar Rapids Mayor Tiffany O'Donnell and other local leaders to tour the construction progress on the final phase of the terminal expansion and modernization project at the Eastern Iowa Airport. The overall four-phase terminal modernization program has been ongoing since 2014.

"Part of what's exciting about the infrastructure law is it's allowing us to do more terminal work on the passenger-facing side, the concourse, the security line, the bathrooms," Buttigieg said. "The ability to just add the square footage like here, and I'm also eager to emphasize places that are preparing for a new volume."

The last portion of the project will consist of adding 32,000 square feet to the airport, four new gates, and remodeling the rest of the terminal area. 

There will also be a sensory room, a quiet place for passengers who need to escape the crowds and noises in the terminal, a pet relief area, and an outdoor patio overlooking the airfield.

"It is about the good paying union jobs as so many Iowans are getting through this work, not to mention the manufacturing jobs and agricultural jobs that will be created and sustained because this region has high-quality modern transportation," Buttigieg said.

Last spring, the airport got a $20.4 million grant from the 2022 Airport Terminal Program, which is a part of the bipartisan infrastructure law to complete terminal upgrades and expansion. 

In March 2022, the airport received $28,350,890 through the state's new Commercial Aviation Infrastructure Fund, or ICAIF. It is part of $100 million in Federal American Rescue Plan Act funding Governor Reynolds allocated for airport infrastructure. Between those two programs and existing CID funds, they are not using any local taxpayer dollars for the project.

"We take great pride in serving as the gate and believe we are providing the very best first and or last impression to our community while being fiscally responsible with our investments in the region," Cedar Rapids Airport Commission member Duane Smith said.

Cedar Rapids leaders said the airport contributes heavily to the growth of the local economy and plays a vital role in bringing new businesses to town.

"Cedar Rapids economic strength relies heavily on this airport," Mayor Tiffany 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."

In the Southwest growth area of the city, O'Donnell said businesses have invested more than $1 billion over the last decade, resulting in more than 1000 new jobs and 2200 retained jobs. She said active projects in the southwest growth area represent a potential in our state for $1.2 billion in economic development.

"In a rural state like Iowa, your airports are your lifelines. Your airports are your connections to everywhere else, and everything that is coming and going from your state at some point is coming through an airport," State Auditor Rob Sand said. "When you've got just a handful of them in your state, everything that's happening and every single one of them is important to that entire state."

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has provided nearly $89 million to modernize Iowa airports.

"In so many ways, transportation is essential to the quality of life and economic strength and safety that we all depend on, and improving transportation to access all of those things makes our lives better," Buttigieg said.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is also funds rural water system upgrades and high-speed internet expansion.

"We are delivering $93 billion in investment to Iowa to help make transportation more resilient against flooding and extreme weather, something that I need not tell Cedar Rapids about the importance of," Buttigieg said. "We are working on plans to make roads safer to walk, bike and drive."

Construction is expected to last 18-24 months. Once finished, the airport said it would serve Eastern Iowa for the next 30 years.

Buttigieg also traveled to Dubuque to tour Downtown Dubuque and see how a $2 million grant is helping improve a railroad overpass. 

While in Cedar Rapids, Buttigieg was asked about the ongoing negotiations in Washington to raise the debt ceiling. Without an increase by June 1, the Treasury Department has warned the United States could run out of cash to pay the bills.

"Default would create just unacceptable and even thinkable consequences for our economy, affecting the transportation sector, as it affects everything. That's why there needs to be a step to take that off the table. Then we can get to what is natural and normal to be negotiating over, which is the actual dimensions of the budget," Buttigieg said. "We disagree with the House Republican proposal that would stop us from growing air traffic control and other conditions. But let's negotiate, and that's the process of the President, and we're counting on the parties at the table to come to a good answer on that."

Buttigieg, who is openly gay, also weighed in on recent LGBTQ-related legislation passed in Iowa. 

Governor Kim Reynolds signed laws prohibiting gender-affirming care for kids and restricting school bathroom use by gender assigned at birth.

Lawmakers passed a controversial and wide-ranging education bill dealing with parents' rights in the classroom. The bill bans education on gender identity and sexual orientation in grades K-6. 

"I think they show a bit of a problem with priorities on the part of many elected leaders, frankly. I mean, here we are in Cedar Rapids, working on making life a little easier for airlines. And they're over there in Des Moines, working on making life a little harder for LGBTQ high schoolers," Buttigieg said. "Why would you be concentrating more on building roads and bridges, fixing up airports, making insulin more affordable, and helping veterans than using that power and trust in those resources to make it even harder for some? Middle school is hard enough if you're not that different from the others. If you are, and you've got politicians trying to keep harder for you because they think that will help them somehow, I think it's a priority problem."