Federal infrastructure package signed into law
By Julia Lerner
When President Joe Biden signed a historic infrastructure package into law on the lawn of the White House on Monday, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Representative Don Young were present to show their support of the legislation.
The bill, which Murkowski supported in negotiations with the White House as part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers, authorizes billions of dollars in spending over the next five years in communities across the United States. Key aspects of the infrastructure plan will tackle issues facing Alaskans, particularly rural Alaskans, in the form of updated roads, bridges, airports, water and sewer projects, broadband development and ports.
“When we talk about the significance of this legislation, it really is fair to say that it is historic in terms of what it will deliver to the country in terms of needed infrastructure,” Murkowski told a press gaggle in her Anchorage office last week. “This is probably the most consequential legislation for this country in terms of growing our economy, growing our jobs, and really helping us be more competitive as a nation, globally, than anything that we can be doing right now.”
The bill provides more than $1 trillion for updating infrastructure nationally, focusing on climate resiliency, transportation and underserved rural areas. Billions of those dollars are already earmarked for Alaskan-specific projects, including $3.5 billion in highway funding for the state over five years, at least $100 million for the deployment of broadband, $180 million for water and wastewater projects over five years, and $230 million for the EPA Alaska Native villages grant program.
Specific dollar amounts have not yet been dedicated to the Nome, Norton Sound, and the Bering Strait region, but Murkowski is enthusiastic about how the bill may support proposed projects, including the Port of Nome expansion and the proposed Graphite One mine, located about 70 miles outside of Nome.
“I do think that [the] Port of Nome and that project is one that will stand to be benefited by this bill,” she told reporters during a recent press conference.
The infrastructure bill has dedicated $2.25 billion to support port infrastructure across the United States, with $250 million set aside for remote and subsistence harbor construction.
The Nome Port expansion project, which involves doubling the size of Nome’s existing port and deepening the basin to allow much larger vessels into Nome, has an estimated price tag around $642 million, with the City of Nome shouldering $225 million over the three construction phases. Nome’s city leadership is hopeful the infrastructure bill will support port construction.
“Port development is a multi-phase project where there may be some additional funding, especially coming out of the [American Rescue Plan Act] funds and the … infrastructure act, which is, frankly, a very necessary infrastructure [bill], not only in Alaska, but all throughout the United States,” Nome City Manager Glenn Steckman told the Nugget.
Even private industry aiming to mine in the region stand to benefit from the legislation, too.
The proposed graphite mine is proposed by Graphite One Inc., incorporated in Alberta, Canada. The company through its wholly owned subsidiary Graphite One Alaska Inc. aims to excavate graphite on the northside of the Kigluaik Moutains and to process the ore into high grade coated spherical graphite like the kind used for lithium-ion electric car batteries and other energy storage systems.
The legislation dictates over $825 million to strengthen national mineral security, as well as reauthorizes the National Cooperative Geologic Mapping Program, which identifies mineral deposits in Alaska, through 2031.
Murkowski says the legislation does not guarantee funding for specific projects.
“We’re not advancing any project, whether it could be Pebble [mine] or Ambler or Graphite One,” she told reporters during her Wednesday press conference. “What we’re doing is focusing on a more expedited process for permitting of the critical minerals themselves, whether its cobalt or graphite or rare earths down in southeast.”
Improvements to water infrastructure
Villages in the region may see significant infrastructure improvements. Rural Alaska Native communities, including five in the Nome Census Area, still lack access to in-home water and sewer, and this legislation supplies more than $3.5 billion for Indian Health Services sanitation facilities across the country. The legislation also earmarked $230 million for the EPA Alaska Native Villages grant program to support new and improved wastewater and drinking water. Currently, 245 communities in Alaska are eligible for the grant.
Teller, Wales, Shishmaref, Little Diomede and Stebbins lack consistent access to in-home water and sewer. Many community members in these villages still use honey buckets. “It’s been decades that we’ve been talking about eliminating the honey bucket and getting clean drinking water into communities and sanitation systems,” Murkowski said. “A flush toilet is not too much to ask in this day and age.”
Climate change resilience
According to a press release from Murkowski, at least 31 indigenous communities in Alaska are “imminently threatened by flooding and erosion due to climate change.” Though the release does not name villages in the Nome Census area, several have begun exploring their own solutions to the climate crisis, and the legislation could provide financial support.
The infrastructure bill plans to provide more around $130 million for community relocation projects across the country, as well as $86 million for climate resiliency projects.
“This funding will provide access to resources to prepare and respond to the adverse effects of climate change, including community relocation if necessary and supported by affected communities,” according to a press release from Murkowski’s office.
Shishmaref began exploring relocation two decades ago. Shaktoolik took matters into their own hands to combat the rising sea by building a new sea wall.
Broadband and internet connectivity will be improved under the infrastructure package. Each state in the nation is guaranteed a minimum allocation of $100 million for the deployment of broadband. Several states may receive more, as $42 billion has been set aside for broadband improvements.
Almost $300 billion will go to supporting federal-aid highway formula funding across the country. Of the documented $273 billion, around $3.5 billion will go towards Alaskan highway funding over the next five years to construct, rebuild and maintain its roads and highways. Following a particularly rainy summer, the roads in and out of Nome are in dire shape. The Nome-Teller, the Nome-Kougarok, and the Nome-Council highways need significant repairs following a summer of washouts.
“When you get out on that road, they don’t check to see if you’re a Republican or you’re a Democrat driving on that road,” Murkowski said. “When you go over that structurally deficient bridge, they’re not checking to see if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. I think every one of us wants and deserves to have safe infrastructure.”
Several key infrastructure needs, including the development of affordable housing across the region, are not included in the current infrastructure bill, but may be up for debate in the future reconciliation package.
“We were going to stay focused on what we determined to be core legacy infrastructure as I mentioned,” Murkowski told the Nugget. “Roads, rails, bridges, ports, harbors, water and broadband. Housing is included in this reconciliation bill that is yet to be determined. Because it is yet to be determined, and because we have had exactly zero hearings on anything that could be incorporated as part of the reconciliation bill, I can’t tell you how that may end up.”
Murkowski says she has significant concerns about accessible housing in the region.
“I share with you the concern about affordable, available housing, not only in the Nome Census Area, but around the state,” she told the Nugget. “It is a priority for us.”
Murkowski, who recently announced her reelection campaign, has received a lot of backlash from her opponents and other conservatives over her support of the infrastructure legislation.
Kelly Tshibaka, running to unseat Murkowski in 2022, announced her senate campaign at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-A-Lago club in Florida earlier this month. She called the bill “another piece of the radical Biden agenda,” and contests Murkowski’s claim that it will serve Alaskans. “It gives Alaska crumbs,” she said.
Tshibaka was endorsed by Trump earlier this year. Murkowski, on the other hand, was one of just seven senators who voted to convict the president during his second impeachment trial and has drawn significant ire from him in the past.
Other far-right groups have criticized Republican supporters of the legislation, calling them “RINOs” (Republicans in name only), and say they’ve “sold out to the radical left’s big government agenda.”
Murkowski disagrees, and says the legislation will benefit all Americans, and pushed back at opponents of the bill.
“This is not about a win for Biden or a win for the Democrats,” she said. “This is about meeting our nation’s needs. And for those who, in my view, are going to be so petty that they would deny good, solid policy because they don’t want the person holding the keys in the White House today, to be able to say they got that under their watch, you know, what a shame on us that we’re not willing to put the priorities of the country first over the politics of this.”
“Those who are pushing back and saying that a Republican cannot support this measure have not looked at what this legislation is going to do for this country,” Murkowski said.