Andrew Wishnia used to dream about making the Transportation Department a climate agency.
It happened under President Joe Biden, said Wishnia, a Capitol Hill veteran who served the first two years of the Biden administration as DOT’s top climate official.
Wishnia stepped down last month from his post as deputy assistant secretary for climate policy under Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He’s now a partner at the consulting firm Cityfi, where he’s still working to drive down the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.
He recently spoke to E&E News about his new gig, the late-night virtual calls that led to the behemoth infrastructure law and how he wound up with a dog whose name means, “Are you kidding me?”
Tell me about your new job at Cityfi.
The way in which bipartisan infrastructure law and Inflation Reduction Act efforts are structured, they rely on folks taking advantage of those eligibilities and opportunities to maximize climate benefits. There’s just not an automatic way to get to net zero by 2050 or a 50 percent reduction by 2030. We have to work with the private sector. We have to work with local, state and other governments. And Cityfi’s business proposition is predicated on 50 percent involvement in the public sector and 50 percent in the private sector, an extraordinarily unique proposition.
What are you proudest of from your time at DOT?
It was such a special experience to be able to work with both career and noncareer officials who all wanted to achieve the same thing, which was to take advantage of an inflection point in American history — a point in which we had the space to do something truly transformational for the American people, and we took advantage of that with the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.
DOT hasn’t always been known as a climate agency. Do you think that changed under this administration?
It absolutely changed.
I was actually a career official during the Obama administration. I remember thinking to myself when I was at the Department of Transportation in my career capacity, that one of my dreams would be for environmental advocates to care about what happens at the Department of Transportation.
I remember thinking to myself, wouldn’t it be hugely impactful if the environmental community were to advocate for climate solutions at the Department of Transportation? And that’s what we did with the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Do you have any fun anecdotes from your time at DOT?
I came from a relatively unique vantage point in that, with colleagues in the Senate, we wrote the base bill for highway title in the bipartisan infrastructure law. Then being able to start to carry that forward with colleagues across the administration was really special.
Between the time that we were on-boarded — I was on-boarded Feb. 1 — to the time that the bipartisan infrastructure law was enacted, it was a sprint. We would meet at all hours of the day and night.
I recall conversations with the [Federal Transit Administration] administrator on weekends, Sunday afternoons, to think through strategies for zero-emission buses.
You were a senior policy adviser to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. What was your highlight from your time at the committee?
I think there are so many Hill staffers that through absolutely no fault of their own draft dozens of pieces of legislation only to see them languish. And through just sheer fortune and determination from [Delaware Democratic Sen. Tom] Carper, who at the time was the head of Democrats on the minority side … we were able to negotiate [what] ended up becoming effectively the base text for the highway portion of the bipartisan infrastructure law.
With Sen. Carper retiring, how do you think that committee will change?
I learned an awful lot from him, and I think it was sort of the Delaware way, just that sense of reaching across the aisle.
He just has such a way about him that I think instinctively makes people want to work with him. And there’s no question in my mind that without Sen. Carper in that position, the [infrastructure bill] would have looked dramatically different. … Someone will take the gavel and do an extraordinary job, but Sen. Carper was fundamentally unique and critical for that moment in American history.
Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Louisville, Ky. My mom and sister are from Ecuador. And my mom and dad met on a blind date in Louisville, which had me in Louisville until I went to college.
You mentioned your dog, can you tell me more about your dog?
My dog’s name is Nomidega, which is just a silly expression that I turned into my dog’s name. I used to hear it on the phone growing up from my grandmother and my mother. I told Chelsea, my wife, that she could have a dog if I could name the dog, so we named her Nomidega because it made both of us laugh. The translation is some form of “Are you kidding me?”
For short, we call her Nomi. She’s a mutt.
How old are your daughters?
Seven and 2. My 7-year-old is Nelly, and she’s just finishing first grade, and then a 2-year-old, Selma, who was born Jan. 2 [of 2021], less than a month before I took my appointment with the administration.
What do you do for fun?
I love spending time with my daughters, particularly at these ages. I do whatever they tell me to do. We play with dolls and do all sorts of silly things. I also love biking. I bike a lot on the Capital Crescent Trail with a manual bike. But I also have an e-bike.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.