July 26 (UPI) — Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding has been described as “transformative” for fixing the country’s crumbling roads and bridges, among other needs. But local governments, especially in small towns, are finding it cumbersome to get the projects in motion.
The law authorizes the federal government to release $1.2 trillion over five years for transportation and infrastructure through dozens of programs. Some 35,000 projects have been funded or broken ground, according to President Joe Biden.
Funding through the law, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, can be used for roads, bridges, railways, public transportation, water and storm sewer, broadband and even climate change mitigation and resilience.
During the National Governors Association summer meeting panel on accelerating infrastructure, Calvin Butler, president and CEO of utility company Exelon, said the ambitions of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law are big, but the “actions are counterintuitive.”
“We’re still operating off of 20- to 40-year-old rules for today’s problems,” he said. “As governors, you all put together very aggressive economic development goals and you’re setting policy. When we go to implement those goals, there’s conflict.”
Navigating the process
States have appointed infrastructure coordinators to guide resources for projects funded by the law. Cities and counties have also turned to private consultants to ensure their projects meet federal funding requirements, which eats into budgets.
Keith Pugh, American Public Works Association president, said any time a local government can avoid federal funding and use local dollars, it will. Pugh is a former engineering services director for High Point, N.C.
“Simply the process is more onerous and it took longer and ultimately cost more when we tried to go after federal dollars,” Pugh said in an interview with UPI. “Local governments don’t have the technical staff or don’t know all of the requirements for those federal purse strings so they hire folks like us to guide the process.”
Pugh said that reporting requirements for projects funded under the National Environmental Policy Act create a particularly cumbersome hurdle. Many local governments do not have the technical staff with the expertise about such requirements, requiring consultants from a wide array of disciplines to conduct research, engage the community, develop plans and guide grant applications.
The local governments that may benefit the most from federal funding due to budget constraints and debt obligations are often struggling to maintain their own staff, as private firms and construction companies are competing with them for the same pool of talent.
Lisa Rapp, public works director emeritus for Lakewood, Calif., told UPI there should be greater transparency on how the funds are distributed to local governments. The money is reaching larger metropolitan areas while smaller communities are lagging behind.
“This is going to be really difficult if we don’t start getting money on the ground,” she said. “This is frustrating to us.”
Delays in receiving funds can make finishing projects a hectic endeavor, as the funds eventually expire. Dollars that are not dedicated to projects could ultimately be forfeited back to the federal government, much like unobligated American Rescue Plan dollars. The deadline for obligating funds is Sept. 30, 2030, for many of the programs.
Small, midsize cities
The infrastructure law’s funding and the grant programs that fall under its umbrella present a unique opportunity for smaller cities and towns to apply for federal funding directly.
The National League of Cities, an advocacy organization with more than 19,000 member communities, developed an assistance program with Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The organization’s grant application boot camps feature virtual courses on grant writing and meeting requirements for different programs like the Combined Railroad Crossing Elimination Program, Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and the Broadband Equity, Access and Development Program.
“One thing we found was because they hadn’t done this before, these small and midsize cities needed help putting together competitive infrastructure grant applications,” Jonathan Kuhl, senior executive director of digital engagement, marketing and communications for the NLC, told UPI. “These help put tools together for applications. It’s like a college course.”
The boot camps are open to municipalities with a population of 150,000 or less. Cities assign a team to participate, including public works directors, city planners and administrators.
Experts help lead the courses, including federal officials, private company leaders and nonprofit organizations.
More than 600 cities have participated since they began last summer.
“We time them to correspond with when the grant applications are due to make sure cities that are putting them together have enough time to do that,” Kuhl said. “We really think this is transformative.”