Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg: Millions headed to Utah for transportation resilience
Billions in additional funding for transportation and safety projects is available to Utah
Standing by the steps of the Utah Capitol building Friday, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Gov. Spencer Cox unveiled the PROTECT Act, a program intended to make communities more resilient to climate change-induced weather events.
“Today we are proud to launch a first-of-its-kind $7.3 billion initiative to modernize America’s infrastructure to withstand extreme weather, so that the roads, bridges, transit and waterways that people rely on can stay open,” Buttigieg said.
The former army officer and mayor of South Bend, Indiana, met with local leaders at the Capitol on Friday prior to the announcement, before heading east on I-80 to view the burn scar from the 2021 Parleys Canyon fire.
He then finished the day at the Emigration Canyon Fire Station, meeting with Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson, local leaders and firefighters to talk about wildfire resiliency and the funding slated for the state over the next five years.
Utah will receive an estimated $65 million for things like rebuilding bridges to withstand floods, ensuring communities have evacuation routes and constructing protective features around roads to withstand wildfires.
“Residents here have been seeing, as the governor just described, the results of extreme weather with their own eyes,” Buttigieg said, “and we’ve been seeing it day by day ... seeing the burn scars near the roads, the Great Salt Lake itself is drying up, remnants of these fires being breathed in by children and their families.”
The importance of this act was on display near Brian Head in southern Utah, Cox said, where in 2017 a massive fire left a burn scar of over 70,000 acres.
“This may be an area and a couple of roads ... vulnerable to flash flooding that often follows a fire,” Cox said.
In response, the Utah Department of Transportation partnered with several federal agencies to build better drainage infrastructure, weather monitoring systems and walls to protect roads from future flooding, allocating about $2 million from its existing budget.
“Had UDOT not done that, that is money that could have been spent on other things,” Cox said, like road repairs, safety projects or bike lanes.
“That is why the PROTECT program that we’re going to talk about today is so very important and valuable. It provides the resources that departments of transportation and local governments will need to invest in transportation resilience and move fast when an incident occurs,” Cox said.
The funding stems from over $7 billion allocated as part of the PROTECT Act, designed to help communities across the country withstand floods, fires, hurricanes, drought and more — weather events that Buttigieg says are tied to climate change. It will be administered by the Federal Highway Administration.
Where will that money go in Utah?
Cox couldn’t say for sure where the newly announced funds will go, adding that he’s working with the state’s transportation board to identify projects.
But one area of concern are the state’s burn scars, like the one outside of Brian Head, which are prone to flash flooding, and water sources that are polluted in the wake of wildfires. A flash flood Thursday washed mud and tree limbs over state Route 143 in that very area.
Another priority is Big and Little Cottonwood canyons, which are susceptible to avalanches when the snow is falling, and floods and rockslides when the snow is melting.
“This is money that we can use to prevent those things, or at least to keep the roads open when we know those disasters happen,” Cox said.
As for a timeline, Cox said “we’ll be completing these projects every year.”
During the roundtable discussion in Emigration Canyon, Wilson detailed what has been a tumultuous few years for residents in northern Utah — first the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by a magnitude 5.7 earthquake in March 2020 and a 100-year windstorm, with historic avalanche cycles, flash floods and wildfires sprinkled in between. And now followed by this summer’s unprecedented heat.
Those are what Buttigieg described as “curveballs” that, with the climate crisis, are happening with increased frequency.
“We don’t know what the next curveball will be. That’s part of, by definition, some of these extreme events, coming in an unpredictable way,” he said. “But what we can predict is that they’re going to be more frequent, they’re going to be more severe. And we’ve got to get ready for them.”
The infrastructure bill, particularly the PROTECT initiative, will make Utah more resilient to these extreme weather events, Wilson said.
“We’re excited about that incredible investment,” she said. “... there is a relief when we see these funds coming, it is substantial.”
For wildfire resilience, a key area of concern highlighted Friday is the lack of evacuation routes — communities like Summit Park, where thousands of people were evacuated during the Parleys Canyon fire. What was initially established as a summer home community has since grown into a year-round neighborhood. Yet the infrastructure hasn’t kept up, and when residents were given a notice to leave, they were all funneled down the same road.
That is the story across rural Utah with communities in the urban-wildland interface.
“Rural Utah is at high risk for impaired, or just a lack of, evacuation,” said Jason Curry, deputy director of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire & State Lands.
For communities that will likely never have more than one evacuation route, fire officials say they want to invest in expanding fuel breaks and shelter-in-place protocol.
Billions more headed to Utah under the infrastructure bill
Billions for bridges: Based on an analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Utah will receive $2.6 billion over the next five years for highway and bridge construction under the infrastructure package.
The state can also compete for a $15.8 billion bridge investment program and a $15 billion grant for “megaprojects that will deliver substantial economic benefits to communities.”
Utah will also receive about $57 million over the next five years for funding to reduce transportation-related emissions, and $65 million to “increase the resilience of its transportation system.”
In total, that’s a roughly 33% increase from what’s currently available via federal highway funding.
“We see the effects of climate change and extreme weather play out across the country every week, with extreme temperatures and rainfall and resulting flooding and wildfires that damage, and in some cases destroy, roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure,” Stephanie Pollack, acting federal highway administrator, said in a statement Friday.
Utah has 62 bridges and over 2,000 miles of highway in poor condition, according to the Department of Transportation.
Additionally, transit times have increased by over 7%, while Utahns pay on average $709 annually for auto repairs due to crumbling roads.
Improving safety: Utah can expect $19 million in formula funding — a portion of the $13 billion available for states under Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act — for highway safety traffic programs that the department says will “help states to improve driver behavior and reduce deaths and injuries from motor vehicle-related crashes.”
The announcement comes as Utah is nearing a record number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths this year.
Local and tribal governments can also compete for up to $6 billion in funding for the “Safe Streets for All” program, designed towards helping reduce injuries and deaths in vehicle-related crashes.
Utah will also see $24.7 million over five years for commercial motor vehicle safety efforts.
Funds for public transit: Utahns who frequent public transportation spend an extra 100% of their time commuting, while non-white households are nearly twice as likely to use public transit, according to the Department of Transportation.
Under the infrastructure law, the Beehive State will get an estimated $665 million over the next five years to improve public transportation options, about 38% more than what’s currently available through federal programs.
Expanding electric vehicle infrastructure: Electric vehicles constitute just 2.3% of new car sales in the U.S. — in China, by comparison, 6.2% of new car purchases are electric.
“The president believes that must change,” reads a press release from the Department of Transportation.
Under the infrastructure package, $7.5 billion will be directed towards building a national network of electric vehicle chargers. Roughly $36 million will be funneled to Utah.
In addition, the state can apply for grants to improve electric vehicle charging, an estimated $2.5 billion available to be distributed among states.