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Head of US DOT speaks with WPR about transportation in Wyoming

Pete Buttigieg speaks into a microphone on a stage.
Gage Skidmore
Wikimedia Commons
Mayor Pete Buttigieg, now Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, speaking with attendees at the 2019 Iowa Federation of Labor Convention hosted by the AFL-CIO at the Prairie Meadows Hotel in Altoona, Iowa.

Wyoming is receiving a lot of federal funding for different projects on its roadways. Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan recently spoke with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He spoke to us about building trust between Wyoming and the federal government when it comes to transportation.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Caitlin Tan: The DOT is awarding Wyoming with about $26 million. It's going to go towards two new semi-truck parking areas along I-80 near Evanston, Wyoming. The idea is to help with congestion, especially during huge winter storms, something we have a lot of in Wyoming. Secretary Buttigieg, tell us a little bit more about the project and why it's happening now on this specific stretch of road?

Pete Buttigieg: I think in the last couple of years, people have begun to really understand how personal and how important supply chains are. One of the most important parts of our supply chains are long haul trucking. And having grown up about a mile from I-80 in a very different part of the country in northern Indiana, I know how important those networks and those interstates are from coast to coast. Truck parking has been a quality of life issue, and even a safety issue for truck drivers at a moment when we're really trying to support truck drivers, and encourage them to stay in the profession. So one of the best things we can do is make sure that there are more safe places to park. Now, this proposal from the Wyoming Department of Transportation is one of the ones that really rose to the top for this Rural Surface Transportation Program we have. This is about $600 million dollars created through President Biden's infrastructure package. And just one example of how it's benefiting Wyoming now that we're getting these dollars out the door.

CT: The federal government just announced another new funding project to build wildlife crossings across the country. I know that really resonates with people here in Wyoming. Why is this a priority for your department?

PB: Wildlife crossings are important, not just for conservation purposes, but for life safety purposes. We have over a million wildlife vehicle collisions in the country – they're responsible for an estimated 200-300 deaths a year. And, especially in the West where you have a lot of bigger animals that wind up on these roadways, this can be a real challenge and a real concern. I think that's one of the reasons why this turned out to be a very bipartisan priority. I've had great conversations with [Wyoming] Sen. Cynthia Lummis and Wyoming's Governor Mark Gordon about how these dollars are going to make a difference. And again, it's particularly true in the western states, though not only the western states, that we have these issues where it's a real problem for wildlife habitats and a real problem for vehicle safety. If the animals don't have a way to get over or under highways and wind up on them and present a danger. So we got $24 million headed to the Wyoming DOT for a wildlife crossing project in southwest Wyoming, where it's very much needed. We're excited to see those funds go to make safer roadways and better habitats.

CT: Another thing with getting around Wyoming is the roads can be hard to travel – especially if you're going by electric vehicle. That's something that's come up recently in Wyoming. Wyoming actually didn't take some federal funding for building out electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure over concerns about demand and distance requirements between the chargers. I'm curious how the DOT could work with rural states like Wyoming to better support EV infrastructure?

PB: Well, I know this might be surprising, but rural states are arguably the best place for EVs. And the reason I say that is that rural residents are more likely to live in single family homes with garages, which means they might already have the charging infrastructure of a plug in the wall, and tend to drive longer distances, which means you'll save more money. If you have, for example, an electric pickup, and you don't need gas or diesel, you tend to save money on those fueling costs.

Now the other side of the coin is rural residents tend to drive longer distances. And if you are routinely driving more than 100 or 200 miles a day, which some people do in places like Wyoming, you need to know there's going to be a charger when you need it. We're requiring that there be charging stations, every so many miles. We'll have common sense about it – we know that not every state is the same. But the general goal across the country is to make sure that at least every 50 miles you're going to come to a charger. Every state is eligible for this funding, including Wyoming. We've had good conversations with the state and they've put together a plan on how to use those dollars. The more we can do that, the more that you can have that same confidence when you leave the house in an EV, that you would on a road trip with a gas car, that you're gonna have a charger when you need it. Obviously, that's a basic thing you need to know before you're going to be comfortable going on a long distance trip by electric vehicle.

But I'll tell you, this year we've seen a million electric vehicles sold in the U.S. That's the first time that's happened – sales continue to grow. So we know that this is the direction that the automotive industry and the country are going in. We're going to make sure that we build out the infrastructure and importantly the grid to support that. Americans will be able to save a lot of money through EVs, but only if we can make sure that they're affordable in the first place. And that you can charge it when you need to

CT: Secretary Buttigieg, often there's a little bit of mistrust of the federal

government in Wyoming. I'm curious if there's anything else you want to add about these projects that might help people warm up to the idea?

PB: Well, I think the best way to earn trust is to get results. When people don't see results, they get frustrated. I think over the last 30-40 years, there's been a somewhat poor record of infrastructure investment in this country. This made a lot of people cynical about infrastructure, so called “Infrastructure Week”, that kept being announced in Washington and didn't come too much. But that's exactly why we were so excited about the bipartisan infrastructure package, emphasis on the word “bipartisan.” A lot of Republicans crossed the aisle to work with Democrats and President Biden to get this package done. Now the results are coming back to places like Wyoming that are seeing more funding for roads and bridges, specific projects like the wildlife crossing in the southwest, and like these dollars that are going to truck parking and congestion relief along I-80. There’s also so much more that's happening in communities, from airport improvements at Jackson Hole to ordinary street improvements that are happening in communities across the country and across the state. You don't have to be a Democrat or Republican or independent to care about that. Good transportation is good transportation. That's what we're doing. We're excited about how it's going to make people better off in every kind of state and community – red, blue and purple.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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