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Cities, counties push for more direct funding in next infrastructure package

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Local leaders are already looking toward reauthorization of federal infrastructure funds as the Biden administration’s infrastructure law nears its halfway point with a focus on preserving the law’s substantial direct funding to cities, counties and regional governments as well as strengthening assistance to smaller entities that have faced challenges snagging some of the grant funding.

“We are now in year three of applying” for grants and funds, said Eileen Higgins, County Commissioner in Miami-Dade County, Florida, who also chairs NACo’s transportation policy steering committee. Higgins spoke Wednesday in Washington, D.C. at an event convened by the National League of Cities, National Association of Counties, Brookings and others that highlighted local government implementation of the IIJA.

“Year one was deer in the headlights — they just stared at you,” she said of many of the smaller and rural counties that were, for the first time, in line for direct federal funds.

“Maybe we need to start a lobbying effort for capacity-building for local governments,” said Eileen Higgins, County Commissioner in Miami-Dade County, Fla.

Miami Dade County

Collaboration among local governments, assistance from trade associations and federal technical assistance programs have helped, but capacity remains an issue she said. “Maybe we need to start a lobbying effort for capacity-building for local governments; really looking at how are we making sure that everybody can write a grant.”

The event came as the White House touts Infrastructure Week and progress from the IIJA and the Inflation Reduction Act, which mark Biden’s signature accomplishments as he heads into the November election.

The IIJA dollars have been “transformative” for the central Ohio area that includes Columbus, one of the country’s fastest-growing areas, said William Murdock, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. “They’re hitting all the key things we need to work on.”

As negotiations over a reauthorization begin, Murdock said preserving direct local funding is key, as are the advance appropriations that are built into the five-year IIJA. “Infrastructure takes time, it’s complicated, you need predictability,” he said.

In addition to support local staffing capacity, the competitiveness of some of the grant programs as well as required local matching funds should be reviewed, Murdock said.

“It’s getting frantic out there,” for competitive funds and drumming up local matches, he said. Shifting back toward formula funding offers an alternative to all the grant programs, as does allowing local governments to use formula funds as local matches or to compete for grants. “There are ways to do this without taxing capacity at the local levels,” Murdock said.

Athens, Ohio Mayor Steve Patterson said IIJA funds like the electric-vehicle charging station programs have allowed cities in his area to launch projects that previously had been a “pipe dream.”

“Reauthorization is extremely important,” Patterson said. “On the capacity front, there’s a role that larger- and medium-sized cities can play to foster relationships with the smaller communities to pull them in,” he said. “But if there were any way for funding to build out capacity in the smaller cities, like using direct funding to support a grant writer or a financial administrator, that would be wonderful as well.”

The IIJA’s focus on grant funding as opposed to just formula funding has led to some political challenges, said Higgins, noting that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis turned down hundreds of millions of federal funds like carbon reduction money that the county could have used.

“Hopefully there will be some thoughts about what to do when states reject the money when the reauthorization happens,” she said. “I said ‘when’ — I’m being optimistic,” she joked.

The Biden administration, which highlights the 56,000 projects launched by the IIJA on its invest.gov website, remains focused on helping smaller communities win a piece of grant funding in a competitive race with larger governments that have more capacity, said Samantha Silverberg, deputy assistant to the president for infrastructure implementation, who spoke at the event.

“It’s been a priority since the early days,” she said. “We are going to continue to push this — we are a learning organization we want to learn what’s working and what’s not working.”

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