Commentary

Here are the next steps for Alaska to make the most of the federal infrastructure law, one year in

The Alaska Municipal League executive director reflects on what’s been accomplished and what lies ahead

November 21, 2022 4:00 pm
A truck is loaded onto a ferry in an undated photo in Pelican, Alaska. (Photo provided by the City of Pelican)

A truck is loaded onto a ferry in Pelican, Alaska. (Photo provided by the City of Pelican)

A year ago, Alaska celebrated the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), what became upon signing by the President the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. No matter the name, Alaska’s state and local officials knew just how important this long-awaited announcement was for agencies and communities with incredible infrastructure needs. The Alaska Municipal League had estimated in the last few years an infrastructure deficit of about $30 billion. It felt like a locked door had been opened. 

Much of what was in IIJA is an increase of funding to previously established programs, but there’s also a lot of new programs. Federal agencies rushed to figure out implementation, including adding in the priorities of the current administration and the criteria for applications. A lot of the effort of the last year, for the state, AML and other organizations, has been to understand these priorities and programs, initiate a series of planning efforts and identify competitive projects and applications. It remains a work in progress.

IIJA funding falls into five broad categories – broadband, energy and power, transportation, water and sewer, and resilience. Alaska’s capacity to coordinate a year ago was at very different stages of preparation to respond to each of these. 

The state has stood up an entirely new office dedicated to broadband, and has digital equity and broadband deployment planning to initiate, conduct and finalize before fully realizing the benefits of the program. It has been and will continue to be an intense effort, even as federal agencies like the National Telecommunications and Information Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture have hosted competitive application processes that Alaska has benefited from. AML is part of the planning processes the state has begun, including visiting communities to conduct digital equity listening sessions. Separately, there will be a statewide cybersecurity plan developed for local government projects to be funded through.

A lot of the energy or power funding is for very specific purposes, and maybe not the panacea that Alaskans would hope for. That said, an emphasis on grid resilience is promising, with funding to the state, tribes, and Alaska Native corporations. The U.S. Department of Energy has spent a lot of the last year collecting information in order to begin its more competitive grant processes. An AML-funded grant application to examine community-level energy projects was successful, bringing $3.5 million to the project that will take place in Northwest and Southeast Alaska. At the same time, the Alaska Energy Authority will be undertaking a number of energy and electric-vehicle planning activities in support of upcoming opportunities.

Between the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, we’re anticipating that Alaska may finally be able to address clean water and sanitation in its unserved and underserved communities.

Transportation had the most amount of funding allocated to it, with formula funding bolstering the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities (including for community transportation projects). Competitive applications have almost overwhelmed the capacity to respond. A new partnership between AML and DOT&PF has meant collaborative applications submitted for a total of about $700 million, and $30 million already awarded. We can’t wait to see the difference these make in communities and how this partnership might lead to greater regional collaboration and coordination between local governments and the state.

Between the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium and the state Department of Environmental Conservation, we’re anticipating that Alaska may finally be able to address clean water and sanitation in its unserved and underserved communities. That’s a $2 billion list that should have funding available to work from. The state’s revolving loan funds, too, have been expanded and a new one established, with many of the loans containing provisions to be forgiven. It remains to be seen how the state will address things like affordability or financial management of those systems, working with communities to bolster both.

Finally, resilience is a broad topic that covers climate change, hazard mitigation, community relocation, and environmental remediation. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior are actively implementing prior and new programs to support funding for tribal and local governments on this front. A new report from the Alaska Division of Community and Regional Affairs and ANTHC about “Unmet Needs” may be a useful summary of some of the issues involved, and the work left to do. A lot of the federal programs require planning activities – wildfire, coastal resilience, climate action and hazard mitigation plans, among others – that result in projects identified for future implementation. There’s a lot of effort required to augment the capacity of communities to go through this process.

That all sounds like a lot, and it is. I fear we’ve only glimpsed a fraction of the work still to do and the effort to get this far has already stretched agencies and organizations thin. To be successful in planning efforts and to respond effectively to grant opportunities will require increased capacity at the state and local level, greater coordination, and the ability to submit competitive applications in response to opportunities. As a state – all the agencies, tribes, organizations and others working on this – the scale of it all remains overwhelming and we’ll still have work to do in the coming year to be strategic, coordinated and successful.

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Nils Andreassen
Nils Andreassen

Nils Andreassen is the executive director of the Alaska Municipal League, which works to strengthen Alaska’s local governments. He lives in Juneau.

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