SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced a $7.3 billion infrastructure spending program to combat the impacts of climate change, including wildfires, floods and extreme heat.
“A state like Utah has felt the effects of droughts, floods and fires,” Secretary Buttigieg said in an interview with FOX 13 News. “These funds are going to help protect our transportation infrastructure from the effects of these events.”
The program spends billions to help ensure roads can withstand floods, do more work to shore up bridges, and help communities bounce back from catastrophic natural disasters.
“There has never been federal funding specifically to make transportation infrastructure more resilient,” the transportation secretary said.
Secretary Buttigieg toured the burn scar of last year’s Parley’s Canyon wildfire that impacted I-80. Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, who accompanied him, said Utahns were already feeling the impacts of climate change with hotter temperatures and more extreme wildfires.
“We’re reviewing the site of a year ago… I think it’s just evident we need more help,” she said of the funding package.
Utah is expected to get tens of millions of dollars over the next five years. At a news conference, Governor Spencer Cox said it was a welcome investment in Utah and added that projects were already being planned.
“Certainly, our burn scar areas are very high priority,” the governor said. “Another priority, of course, are our canyon areas.”
The money is coming from the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that passed with bipartisan support in Congress. Sen. Mitt Romney voted to support the bill, while Sen. Mike Lee and the House delegation all voted against it.
Sen. Lee criticized the bill as a factor for increasing inflation. Secretary Buttigieg pushed back on that in his interview with FOX 13 News.
“That’s actually how you fight inflation. Meanwhile, we’re creating good paying jobs and a lot of economic strength,” he said.
Andrew Gruber, the executive director of the Wasatch Front Regional Council, said the state will ultimately benefit from the increased transportation spending.
“This infrastructure bill is really going to be helpful to Utah as we invest in our state highway system and also making sure we have good transit options for people to take the train, bus and also ride their bikes and use sidewalks,” he said after a roundtable meeting with the transportation secretary.
At the roundtable discussion, Secretary Buttigieg asked about collaborations between counties and agencies on disasters and transportation projects. Gruber said in Utah, agencies work well together to not only respond to disasters but plan for future projects.
Late Friday, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall rode a TRAX train with Secretary Buttigieg as she pitched him on upcoming projects that could use some federal funding. She was accompanied by Utah Transit Authority officials and a representative of Sweet Streets, an advocacy organization.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from the federal government to invest deeply so the growth that is happening that so many Salt Lakers are benefiting from can benefit all of us,” Mayor Mendenhall said.
Secretary Buttigieg told FOX 13 News while on the train he fully expected some applications for federal funding for expansion of mass transit in Utah.
“Look, the more people are able to use transit, the bigger the benefits for safety, climate, equity, jobs. It’s even better when more people use transit — it’s even a benefit for the people who don’t use transit,” he said. “Because it means less congestion on the roads. It’s a win, win, win. That’s why we’re supporting it strongly.”
Asked about the idea of “free fare” transit in Utah, which has been supported by Gov. Cox and Mayor Mendenhall, Secretary Buttigieg told FOX 13 News it was worth trying out.
“It’s certainly something we can take a look at,” he said, noting that other cities are also experimenting with it. He later added: “It’s not how we’re used to looking at transit, but remember the majority of funding for transit systems comes from other sources the transit you pay.”
Secretary Buttigieg, who ran for President of the United States in 2020 (he ultimately dropped out and joined President Biden’s cabinet) has been floated as a possible candidate in 2024, should Biden not seek re-election.
Asked about his plans, he told FOX 13 News: “No. The president is planning to run again. I’m proud to serve under this president. He has put me in charge of making sure that transportation investments succeed… that’s more than enough to keep me busy.”