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Buttigieg Was Slow to East Palestine but Rushed to Philly. DVJ Asked Him Why

It took nearly three weeks for U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to make time to come to the scene of a Feb. 3 toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, just minutes from the Pennsylvania border.

Former President Donald Trump, hauling thousands of bottles of “Trump Water” along the way, made the trip before Buttigieg did.

But it took less than three days for “Mayor Pete” to travel to Philadelphia and hold a press conference at the site of the I-95 bridge collapse, letting affluent suburbanites know he was on the job.

“This tragic crash is having an outsize impact on commuters and goods moving up and down the I-95 corridor,” Buttigieg told the press. “It’s a key artery for the movement of people and goods. That’s why it’s important to get this restored quickly.”

Why did Buttigieg clear his calendar for a Philly visit after waiting so long to show up in rural, red-state Ohio? DVJournal asked him that question at Monday’s press conference.

“When I went [to East Palestine], I decided to break from the precedent, the norm, that generally transportation secretaries don’t go to active response sites,” Buttigieg said. “Part of what I found was important — especially when you saw all the politicization and misinformation that the people of East Palestine had to deal with — is that we’re just in a new world in terms of the importance of presence to help make sure everybody understands what is happening, the coordination that is happening, the teamwork that’s happening.

“And so, in the same way that I value the ongoing conversation that I have with people I spend time with on the ground in East Palestine, I value the opportunity to be both on the ground and coordinating over the phone with everybody who’s involved in the [Philadelphia] response.”

Buttigieg’s claim that his learning curve covers the disparity was met with skepticism. Critics argue the slow response in East Palestine was more evidence that rural, largely White communities are a low priority for the East Coast elites who dominate the Democratic Party.

In February, CNN reporters tried to downplay criticism of Buttigieg’s absence. “Former President Trump is going to Ohio today,” reported CNN anchor Poppy Harlow. “East Palestine, to be specific, the site of the toxic train wreck in a county where he won more than 70 percent of the vote in 2020… the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, hasn’t been yet. Trump capitalizing on that?”

The Washington Post noted at the time that Trump carried East Palestine with nearly 70 percent of the vote. It quoted former Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan (D), “who said that what he described as the slow response from the federal government reinforced the idea that officials in Washington don’t care about voters in Ohio.”

“You want to show the people in that community … that when something like this happens that their government is able to react in an effective and efficient way, in an immediate way,” Ryan said. “The feedback we’re hearing from the community, people in the community, is that nobody cared.”

On the other hand, Philadelphia is a Democratic stronghold along the Acela corridor and a large contingent of Black voters — a key part of the coalition that made Biden his party’s nominee and, eventually, president. Biden, who at age 80 rarely travels for politics, has already made multiple stops in the area since taking office. And he is scheduled to appear in Philadelphia on Saturday, where he will receive the AFL-CIO’s endorsement.

The class divide and partisan politics are obvious, Republicans say.

Pothole Pete continues to play politics as he flirts with battleground state Pennsylvania while turning a blind eye to solidly red Ohio,” said Republican National Committee spokesperson Rachel Lee. “Buttigieg’s political aspirations have long been clear, and voters know exactly where his true priorities lie.”

State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin) took issue with Buttigieg’s claim that he had to appear in person to address “politicization and misinformation.”

“The genuine fear and concern from the residents affected by the train derailment were never about politics or ‘misinformation,’” Mastriano said. “My Senate committee (veteran’s affairs and emergency preparedness) held the first hearing in the nation to hear testimony from those folks. They expressed fears that they may never feel comfortable living in their communities again.

“I’m pleased to see that Mayor/Secretary Pete visited the I-95 site so quickly,” added Mastriano. “But it shouldn’t have taken him over 20 days to come to East Palestine to tour the disaster zone and hear the concerns of the residents.”

Kim Bedillion, president of the Pennridge Area Republican Club, noted Buttigieg’s lack of experience and what many see as a troubled record ionthe job. “One would hope that Secretary Buttigieg’s relatively speedy response to the I-95 overpass collapse when compared to his three-week delay in visiting East Palestine is not politically motivated, but considering that East Palestine has a Republican mayor and Philadelphia is decidedly Democrat, politics may very well have played a part.”


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I-95 Collapse Update: Body Found in Burned Debris

Pennsylvania State Police said Monday a body was found in the burned rubble where I-95 collapsed after a tanker truck caught fire early Sunday morning.

The body was turned over to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office for identification.

“What we know is the collapse was caused by a tanker truck fire which resulted in the closure of about a seven-mile stretch in both directions of I-95 in the Tacony section of Philadelphia,” said Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick via Twitter. “Demolition of the collapsed bridges has begun, and detours are in place.

“Engineers continue to work around the clock to assess the extent of the damage, but there is no exact timetable as to when the repairs will take place. In the interim, the state and mass transit entities have developed plans to handle the influx of commuters,” said Fitzpatrick (R-Bucks).

Kevin Martin and his dad, Michael Martin, drove southbound by the billowing black smoke along I-95 Sunday morning on their way from Levittown to go fishing.

“We were headed to Jersey shore for a day of fishing [in Margate],” said Kevin Martin. “My dad suspected it was oil or some type of fuel burning, judging by how dark the smoke was. I wasn’t so afraid as I’m used to fires in the city. But this one did frighten us once we crossed over the bridge and noticed how badly the road had collapsed.”

Kevin Martin, a United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiner’s member, often works in Philadelphia. He said he was glad he worked locally on Monday with increased traffic due to the I-95 road closure and detours.

Danny Ciesler, a lawyer who commutes from Bristol to Center City, said he has some flexibility to work from home but must be in Philadelphia “at least a few days a week.”

He was concerned about his commute when he heard on Sunday that I-95 was closed. But he took a train into the city without a problem on Monday.

“They added additional cars to the Trenton line,” he said. SEPTA “did a really good job.”

“It’s not an ideal situation for anybody. But the first responders and the Department of Transportation jumped right into action. Gov. Josh Shapiro was right on the scene. And I believe they’re getting all the resources they need to fix it, and, in the meantime, they stepped up and did what they needed to do,” said Ciesler.

Commutes for work are not the only trips affected by the I-95 closure. Many Delaware Valley residents take advantage of the area’s proximity to the New Jersey shore to visit there often in the summer.

Newtown resident Fred D’Ascenzo works from home but is concerned about what the closure will do to his trips to Longport, N.J.

“Longpoort used to take one and a half hours,” D’Ascenzo said. “Now, I am not sure what route to take to get there. It may add 45 minutes to the trip. I will probably stay at the shore (longer) as I own the property. And stay away from I-95.”

Shapiro signed a disaster declaration Monday morning. He tweeted, “To expedite the rebuilding of I-95 and cut through the red tape, I issued a disaster declaration allowing the Commonwealth to immediately draw down federal funds and move quickly to begin the repair and reconstruction process.

“My administration is in regular contact with our federal partners, who have pledged their complete support and assistance as we create alternative routes and rebuild I-95. We are all hands on deck to repair I-95 as safely and as efficiently as possible.”

The governor’s proclamation makes $7 million in state funds immediately available for the interstate reconstruction. It authorizes the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Transportation, and the Pennsylvania State Police to use all available resources and personnel as necessary. The proclamation also cuts red tape, waiving bidding and contracting procedures, as well as other formalities normally prescribed by law. Per the constitutional amendment approved in 2021, this proclamation will remain in place for 21 days unless extended by the Legislature,” his office said in a press release.

Congresswoman Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) tweeted, “I spoke to the White House this morning, and federal funds are already on the way. I-95 is a vital passage for Philadelphia and the east coast — we must rebuild as quickly as possible. Thank you @GovernorShapiro, for your swift and effective leadership for our Commonwealth.”

PennDOT spokesman Brad Rudolph said the repair timetable has yet to be made available. He said the north and south bridges over Princeton Avenue would be demolished. On Sunday, Shapiro said it would take “some number of months” to reopen the span.

Philadelphia resident Chris Martin tweeted, “In Holland, the bridge would have been rebuilt better and rebuilt stronger in less than one week. But this is America, and there are government departments, personal interests, and unions who want some piece of the pie. The bridge will reopen in 2024.”

Northbound traffic must exit at Aramingo (Exit 26) and follow detours through local roads back onto the interstate. Southbound traffic can get to Cottman Avenue, exit there, and use local roads to return to I-95.

James O’Malley, a spokesman for Bucks County, said, “We continue to monitor the situation, which the state has said will likely take months to remedy, and will no doubt remain a headache for the county’s residents and businesses for some time. We are in contact with our municipalities closest to the city, who, as of this morning, had not yet reported any major traffic concerns in Bucks.”

A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Police Department said it will not release any information on the truck driver, whose truck burst into flame that caused a portion of I-95 to collapse Sunday, until after the investigation is complete.

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