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Opinion: How will Utah afford to fight fires and build infrastructure? Pete Buttigieg has the answer

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Utah to announce new federal funding that will greatly benefit Utah

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U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg speaks in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 29, 2022.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg talks about new infrastructure projects to help build resilience to the impacts of extreme weather during a press conference with Gov. Spencer Cox outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 29, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visited Salt Lake County Friday, choosing Utah to announce new and transformational federal funding, tour our canyons and engage with local leaders.

While here, Buttigieg visited with firefighters who protected lives, homes and roads last year during the Parleys Canyon Fire. I had the chance to share with the secretary the concern I had for our region when the fire broke out that hot August day almost a year ago. We showed him the burn scar, pointed out the homes of the 8,000 residents that were evacuated and the stretch of Interstate 80 that is still under threat of mudslide due to the vegetation devoured by the fire.

I have vivid memories of Day 1 of the fire. En route to a family wedding, I happened to be driving in Parleys Canyon shortly after the fire started. Seeing the flames so close to the interstate and moving rapidly toward homes was frightening. I nervously sat through the wedding, texting my emergency management team throughout, and left early, fearing the fire would become a large-scale threat involving multiple jurisdictions and hundreds of firefighters. Indeed, it did. Unfortunately, it won’t be the last fire that impacts people and property in our state.

We are contending with climate change impacts that are resulting in an increased risk of natural disasters, threatening our safety and quality of life. This summer we have faced weeks of record-setting heat and like many Western states, wildfires are now a constant threat throughout the summer season.

Buttigieg was here to announce a game-changing federal program that will support our state with approximately $65 million in new funding to prepare for future wildfires and other extreme events.

The Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation (PROTECT) program will distribute $7.3 billion nationally for highway, transit, rail and port projects that make our transportation and infrastructure systems more resilient to wildfires and other dangerous weather. Utah’s funding will help us adapt our infrastructure to rising temperatures, avalanches, wildfires, flooding, earthquakes and other life-threatening events.

Hundreds of acres in Salt Lake County border foothills where urban wildfire risk is extremely high. Years ago, I served on the Unified Fire Authority Board of Trustees when two fires forced hundreds of residents to leave their homes. Those were close calls and there will be more. The federal investment announced this week by Buttigieg will provide critical resources so that when those close calls occur, we are prepared.

In addition to PROTECT, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a historic opportunity to help us stay ahead of growth and modernize our infrastructure. It will provide Utah with $2.6 billion to repair highways and bridges, $665 million to strengthen public transportation, $181 million to upgrade airports, $57 million to reduce carbon emissions; $36 million to deploy electric vehicle charging infrastructure; and $19 million to enhance roadway safety. These transformative projects will serve the needs of residents, workers, businesses and visitors here in Utah.

As the fastest-growing state in the nation, with a population increase of 18.4% over the past decade, it is incredibly costly to stay on top of our infrastructure needs. Our amazing quality of life has attracted talent and businesses across sectors like financial services, information technology and advanced manufacturing. Tourists are visiting our stunning landscapes in record numbers. That is good news, but we all know it takes longer to get from point A to point B on our roads and the growth puts stressors on our infrastructure.

Despite these challenges, I remain optimistic.

As evidenced by the visit by Buttigieg, there is a coordinated and intentional effort between the Biden administration, state leaders, the Utah Department of Transportation, the Utah Transit Authority, the Wasatch Front Regional Council and local jurisdictions within Salt Lake County to modernize our infrastructure. The federal resources provided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will help to address the myriad challenges and take advantage of opportunities to be more resilient. 

As mayor of Salt Lake County, I am thankful to President Joe Biden and his administration for this timely investment, which recognizes the dangers posed by climate-related hazards and provides financial assistance to help mitigate these risks. Investing in infrastructure built to withstand future threats will ensure our community remains safe, prosperous and resilient for generations to come.

Jenny Wilson is mayor of Salt Lake County.