The federal infrastructure bill signed last year could transform Alaska similar to how the trans-Alaska pipeline did more than 40 years ago, Alaska leaders say. But that’s possible only if local leaders capitalize on myriad funding opportunities available through the bill, Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Monday during a symposium organized by her office.
Well over 1,000 people -- including state lawmakers, mayors, and tribal leaders -- attended a first-of-its-kind symposium that brought federal agency representatives to Alaska to help local leaders navigate the mammoth bill that promises billions of dollars to the state through competitive grants.
“This is going to be an Alaska that is better cared for than ever before. An Alaska with a higher quality of life, whether you’re in Anchorage or whether you’re in a remote village,” Murkowski said, addressing a standing-room-only crowd in the Dena’ina Convention Center in Anchorage.
Murkowski, Sen. Dan Sullivan and the late Rep. Don Young all voted in favor of the bill, which among other things promises to bring clean water, reliable internet connectivity and better roads to communities across the state.
But the potential transformation promised by the bill through hundreds of projects and thousands of new jobs hinges on hard work by local governments, tribes and nonprofit organizations that must apply for grants to fund the projects. That means they’re competing against communities in the Lower 48 and other parts of the state.
Applying for some of the grants requires mastering complicated guidelines and rules, some of which have not yet been released by the federal agencies that govern the funding.
“I’m pretty well-educated and I look through some of these grant offerings and it’s like, ‘take me back to school again,’” Murkowski said in an interview.
Even if Alaska gets some of the coveted grants, Murkowski said she is worried about developing a workforce in the state that can tackle the projects that will be funded. When the trans-Alaska pipeline was built, the state had to bring in workers from other states. Murkowski doesn’t want that to happen again, but the state is already facing a workforce shortage affecting many sectors of the economy.
“We can see this coming. We can see where the skill sets will be needed, and we need to make sure that Alaskan workers are able to seize these opportunities for the jobs,” Murkowski said.
North Slope Borough Mayor Harry Brower was one of many mayors in attendance.
“I wanted to make sure we get a better understanding of what all this means for the residents of the North Slope,” he said. He listed coastal erosion, ports and bridges as some of the infrastructure needs that funding available through the bill could address.
But for him, it is still early in the process, and with funding spread out over the next five years, it is too soon to tell what is possible.
“We don’t have all the information. We have to continue identifying who’s got it, who’s got the criteria, who’s got the guidance to provide that resource and make it available for our use,” he said.
Stephanie Queen, Soldotna City Manager, said the symposium was held at a key time as communities are beginning to line up projects that may be eligible for funding.
“We have a good sense of what the needs are. We’re here to get more information about the funding opportunities,” she said at the conference, which she attended alongside Soldotna Mayor Paul Whitney. “It’s also about strengthening relationships with agency folks so that as the programs come together, we know who to call, they’re familiar with us.”
One important thing she learned during the symposium was “to manage our expectations about that timeline.”
“Not all the funding will be available this year, and that’s good news, because some of these projects take years to get to a point where they are ready to go live,” she said. “It gives us a chance to look at our own staffing and decide where we need to supplement that by building more capacity.”
For tribes, the funding presents a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to bring resources where they are needed, said Nicole Borromeo, executive vice president and general counsel for the Alaska Federation of Natives.
“This is a small window in time and it’s going to close. And when it closes, we’re not going to see this type of investment in Indian Country, maybe ever again in my lifetime. So if we’re not well-positioned right now to capitalize on these opportunities, you better believe that a Lower 48 tribe is and will be,” she said.
But many tribes are stretched thin after two years of handling a pandemic, and don’t have the resources needed to keep track of the various application requirements. There has also been high turnover in tribal staff -- with some tribes going through two or three administrators during the pandemic.
“There is so much information out there, so many different opportunities, that the tribes we’ve spoken to are just stretched so thin. Keeping up on the opportunities in itself is just a full time job,” Borromeo said.
Carlos Monje, Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy, made his first trip to Alaska for the symposium. For him, the event underlined “that one size doesn’t fit all.” With Alaska’s many rural communities, harsh weather and reliance on planes and ferries for transportation, many of the programs in the bill are not designed with the state in mind. But others, like funding for the Marine Highway System, were crafted specifically for Alaska.
“Alaska is poised to make a substantial leap forward,” Monje said. “For a very long time the challenge to getting some of these projects off the ground was funding, and we have more funding than ever now.”
Monje said that while smaller events have been taking place across the country to provide information on the infrastructure bill, the symposium was unique in bringing together so many federal agencies. But he expected more similar events to follow suit.
Murkowski said that last week she and the other senators who took the lead on the infrastructure bill met for a working lunch. She shared that she was planning the symposium.
“They all looked at me, like, ‘Okay, that’s a super great idea. How do I follow what you have done?’ ”