American infrastructure is broken. Here's an $830 million plan to fix it

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There's one word that will anger any American, regardless of their political leanings: infrastructure. Potholed roads, creaking bridges and half-baked public transport bind us nationally like nothing else can. And that was before climate change caused coastal flooding, extreme heat and supercharged wildfires that made things even worse.

American infrastructure was designed for the climate we enjoyed 50, 75, even 100 years ago. Much of it is not stopping, endangering lives and breaking supply chains. To bring all those roads, railways, bridges and entire cities into the modern age, the Biden-Harris administration last week announced nearly $830 million in funding through the bipartisan infrastructure legislation of 2021. The long list of projects includes improved evacuation routes in Alaska, a new bridge in Montana, restored wetlands in Pennsylvania, and a whole bunch of retrofits in between.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg says, “We know that if we want to build infrastructure that lasts for the next 50 or 100 years, it's going to have to look different than the last 50 or 100 years.”

Wired sat down with Buttigieg to talk about the bipartisan appeal of infrastructure, how to use nature instead of fighting it, and the irresistible triple payoff of getting people out of cars and onto buses and trains. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Matt Simon: The United States is a very diverse place in terms of climate. We've got all these deserts and extreme heat, coastlines and sea level rise, and increasingly extreme rainfall. How does this new funding work toward managing all of that?

Secretary Buttigieg: While every part of the country is different, transportation systems are affected by climate and other hazards in every part of the country. It could be a forest fire, a flood, a rise in sea levels, a landslide, a drought or even an earthquake. All these things can affect the sustainability of our transportation systems. And many of these things are becoming more extreme.

One of the more adverse consequences of climate change is heavy rainfall. A large portion of this funding is being spent on improving infrastructure to deal with those types of floods. what are the options?

For example, in Cincinnati, we are strengthening walls and installing sensors in hills to tackle such a problem, where hill landslides due to intense rainfall can affect the road. In West Memphis, we are investing in natural infrastructure. What's interesting in that case is that it's not actually the road – we're investing in wetlands around the road to reduce the chance of flooding. This is part of how we protect the supply chains that run along I-55 and I-40.

And then sometimes you get hit with a one-two punch. For example, in Colorado, I-70 was affected by a combination of fire and flooding. Wildfires will come, it will destroy trees and the root structures that hold the soil together, followed by floods. And then you have more chance of having landslides, which destroyed I-70 for a long time a few years ago. So we're seeing this a lot of times – something I think about a lot as a former mayor – which is a backlash against water in the wrong places. This is certainly a big part of what we have to deal with in our transportation systems.