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Baltimore bridge collapse raises many issues for Transportation Secretary Buttigieg

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

The collapse of Baltimore's Francis Scott Key Bridge is raising a variety of issues, from the safety of critical infrastructure and the impact on supply chains to the challenge of reconstruction. Joining us to discuss these issues is the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

ELLIOTT: So by now, many of us have seen the dramatic images of the Key Bridge collapsing into the river below. What can you tell us about the investigation into what happened?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, as you said, the country has seen the images. I can't describe to you what it was like to be at the water's edge, looking at the proportions of that wreckage. And first and foremost, our thoughts are with the families of those who lost their lives. The Coast Guard and NTSB are independently investigating, and I can't speak to any details of the investigation.

What I can say is that going forward, we need to do everything to help Maryland rebuild that bridge and reopen that port. And that's what the president has committed. And it's what I emphasized as I spent time yesterday with Governor Wes Moore, who is providing outstanding leadership with compassion as well as clarity here. This port is the top vehicle handling port in the United States. There are other ports on the East Coast, but nothing like it in terms of its capacity. So this presents an immediate supply chain challenge until we can get that channel back up and running. And of course, the bridge is something about 30,000 vehicles depend on every day. So we're marshaling all of the federal resources that we can bring together to help Maryland get that bridge back up.

ELLIOTT: You know, President Biden has said the federal government will pay for the entire cost of reconstructing the bridge and that he expects Congress to support that. Given how sharply divided Congress is, particularly in this election year, is that a realistic promise?

BUTTIGIEG: I think, look, the president's hope and expectation is that this will be a bipartisan issue, and there are some things that just can't get caught up in left and right, Democrat and Republican. This deserves to be one of them. And if that sounds optimistic or naive, I would point out that the infrastructure package itself is something that passed with bipartisan support. And there's a reason why the single biggest category in that whole package was roads and bridges. If that was possible in 2021, then I believe it's possible in 2024. We're already mobilizing all of the resources we can put together short of what requires an act of Congress. But for anything that does require an act of Congress, we're going to be appealing to members of both parties to make sure the funding is in place. Again, this isn't just for Baltimore. The whole country counts on the shipping that goes through that port. And that 695 bridge connection is important to the entire region as well.

ELLIOTT: Do you have a timeline for how long reconstruction might take? We spoke with a civil engineering professor, Ben Schafer, earlier today, and he said it could take years.

BUTTIGIEG: Well, the original bridge took about five years to build, but we want to do everything possible to make sure this takes place as quickly as possible. There is no exact precedent for this. There was the Minnesota bridge collapse. That was not because it was struck by anything. It collapsed because of design issues in 2007. That one took about 14 months to reconstruct. But again, it's too soon to know how similar or how different the engineering challenges are going to be. What we do know is that in addition to the project of getting that bridge back up and running, we can't wait for the bridge work to be complete to see that channel reopen. There are vessels that are stuck inside right now, and there's an enormous amount of traffic that goes through there that's really important to the entire economy.

ELLIOTT: We only have about 30 seconds left. Does this accident have the administration looking at new ways to secure America's critical infrastructure?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, one thing we're paying a lot of attention to right now is resilience. That's another feature of President Biden's infrastructure package - the first time ever that we've had a dedicated program to make our infrastructure more resilient, whether we're talking about issues like this, seismic issues - we're retrofitting bridges around the country to be better withstanding earthquakes or climate issues. And that will continue to be a focus going forward.

ELLIOTT: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, thank you for your time.

BUTTIGIEG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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