Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visits Utah, unveils new federal program to help respond to climate change

Cabinet secretary rides TRAX with SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall, talks free fares, transit and housing.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Gov. Spencer Cox at a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 29, 2022.

It was a rare moment of bipartisan comity Friday morning on the south side of the Utah Capitol as Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, representing the Biden administration, and Republican Gov. Spencer Cox touted a new program to spend more than $7 billion in federal money that will allow states and local governments to prepare for and respond to the effects of climate change.

The program, a part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package signed into law by President Joe Biden last year, funds a first-of-its-kind program to help communities with the impacts of extreme weather events.

“The climate crisis is real, and it is here. The good news is we know what we have to do, and America is fully capable of rising to the challenge,” Buttigieg said. “We have the power to stop this.”

As is standard for most new programs from Washington, the initiative has been given a snappy moniker. The Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation (PROTECT) Formula Program, makes a significant investment in helping communities and governments mitigate the impacts of climate change.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a news conference at the Utah Capitol in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 29, 2022.

The $7.3 billion program will allow communities to strengthen roads and protect transit from extreme temperatures or make seismic improvements to bridges that may be at risk. Utah should see tens of millions of dollars that he hopes will be used to help lower the impact of wildfires and their aftermath on roads. He points to burn scars caused by wildfires that led to mudslides for years after the fire.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, praised Buttigieg’s announcement on social media Friday. Romney played a major part in negotiating the bipartisan infrastructure bill that funds the PROTECT program.

Letting states lead the way

“This money provides the resources local governments will need to move quickly to address these issues without impacting other needs,” Cox said. “Hotter temperatures and drought are a recipe for wildfires. This program will make our infrastructure more resilient.”

According to Buttigieg, the funding will be available to states and local governments over five years and can be used to address any number of projects.

“No part of America is immune to this,” Buttigieg said. “We don’t have all the answers in Washington. We’re looking to the states to decide what works for them.”

Cox says he anticipates projects made possible by the federal funds to come on line every year.

“Whatever money is coming in,” Cox said, “it’s not enough.”

During a midmorning roundtable discussion on the impacts to transportation from wildfires, Buttigieg said he wants to ensure the department is being smart in how it deploys the new federal funding.

“If we put the basic ground rules in place, then send the funding out to the local organizations and states,” Buttigieg said. “They’re going to come up with ideas we won’t have thought of sitting in Washington.”

Meeting Mendenhall

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg rides a TRAX train with Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall on Friday, July 29, 2022.

In the afternoon, Buttigieg met Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall at the Jackson/Euclid TRAX Station on the capital’s west side before hopping on the green line and riding to the airport to depart Utah.

Mendenhall told Buttigieg the city already had projects in mind before Biden signed the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

In a separate interview, the mayor said she could not discuss specific projects with the transportation secretary.

Mendenhall said she wants to leverage federal infrastructure funding to connect the city’s west and east sides, improving access to economic opportunities and disrupting cycles of poverty. She said the city is seeking hundreds of millions of federal dollars.

In a brief interview on the train platform, Buttigieg said the infrastructure funding program he announced Friday could not help cover the cost of making public transit along the Wasatch Front free. The free transit initiative is strongly supported by Mendenhall and has the backing of the governor.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg walks to the Jackson/Euclid Station in Salt Lake City on Friday, July 29, 2022.

Still, Buttigieg said, Biden’s infrastructure package includes historic levels of funding for public transit.

“We’re a very pro-transit administration,” he said, “because we know the economic benefits, the safety benefits, the equity benefits and the climate benefits that come with having more people having that excellent option for transit.”

Buttigieg acknowledged affordability can be an issue and said free fare pilot programs are leading to “some very interesting results.”

“Many of them are early,” he said, “but we’re following this with interest and are very open to the ideas that are coming in.”

Responding to a question about how transit can affect Salt Lake City’s housing affordability woes, the secretary said the cost of housing and transportation are intertwined because residents either live somewhere unaffordable to have access to work, or endure long commutes to live somewhere more affordable.

And when transportation and housing make up 40% of the budget for low-income households, Buttigieg said, leaders should think about the two costs as being connected.

“I see that kind of thinking here on the ground,” he said. “We’re working to do that federally with things like support for transit-oriented development, and we’re going to continue that focus because transportation is often part of the solution on affordability.”