Bipartisan Infrastructure bill money to reach regional projects
By Megan Gannon
In November 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed a historic bill allocating $1.2 trillion for infrastructure projects nationwide. Slowly over the last year, new details about how that money will be spent have emerged. To date, Alaska has received at least $2.8 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
The Nome Census Area has been allocated more than $265 million for various projects, with most of those funds going toward the Port of Nome’s expansion.
“The nearly $3 billion announced for Alaska over the past year is creating jobs throughout our state and helping us build the basic infrastructure that the Lower 48 already enjoys,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a statement last month marking the one-year anniversary of the law’s passage. Murkowski added that the bill would “make our communities safer, more connected, and a better place to live” by funding updates to roads, ports and bridges as well as expanding access to clean water and broadband.
Murkowski as well as Sen. Dan Sullivan and the late Rep. Don Young backed the bill, despite criticism and opposition from their fellow Republican lawmakers. In the Senate, 19 Republicans ultimately voted for the legislation as did 13 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Murkowski had also supported the bill in negotiations with the White House.
The bill set aside $250 million for remote and subsistence harbor construction. In January, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers committed that entire amount to the Port of Nome expansion. The port expansion is expected to cost more than $600 million overall, and the $250 million chunk would go toward the Army Corps’ cost share of the first phase of Phase 1 construction.
Nationwide, airport-related projects got a $15 billion boost under the Airport Improvement Grant program, with Alaska seeing more than $78 million of those funds. For the fiscal year of 2022, the Nome region was allocated grants for each of its village airports—in the amount of either $110,000 or $159,000—and the Nome Airport received more than $1 million.
Dylan Blankenship, a development specialist in aviation with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, said this money will come through existing programs the department uses to maintain and improve its airports.
“The bill funding increases the amount of money we’re getting…and basically allows us to slightly expedite our current program, but with inflation, it’s not as expedited as we hoped,” Blankenship said. “We definitely aren’t leaving any money on the table. Our program will easily utilize every bit of funding that they’ll give us, and we appreciate that there’s more money. But again, it’s really more of a slight expediting. These construction projects are already horrendously expensive.”
According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, around $130 million of funds from the infrastructure bill had been earmarked for community relocation projects and $86 million for climate resiliency efforts for hundreds of tribes and villages across the country.
Erosion, permafrost thaw and other climate-related phenomena threaten communities along Alaska’s coastlines and waterways. Ex-typhoon Merbok offered a dramatic example of just how vulnerable low-lying villages are. Last week, the department announced that two villages in Alaska—Newtok and Napakiak in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta—would receive $25 million each in grants to relocate vital infrastructure to higher ground. A few villages around the Bering Strait region have been picked to receive smaller grants to address climate issues.
This November, Golovin’s Chinik Eskimo Community was awarded $83,000 and the Native Village of Shaktoolik $143,151 to help hire staff to assist the tribes’ capacity for relocation. Meanwhile, the Native Village of Unalakleet was awarded $290,440 to develop designs for a new subdivision in collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Lab’s Cold Climate Housing Research Center. Stebbins received $148,432 for a permafrost risk assessment, in which consultants will forecast what infrastructure will be impacted by predicted thaw.
In March, the Alaska congressional delegation also announced that Golovin would receive $3 million and Shishmaref $8.8 million under an existing USDA program to protect and restore watersheds and water supplies.
The bill also injected new funds into the Denali Commission, a federal agency tasked with improving utilities, infrastructure and economic support across Alaska, especially in remote communities.
“We got an additional $75 million from the bill, which, historically for the commission, wouldn’t have been a lot of money, but in recent years, it’s a lot of money,” said Garrett Boyle, the federal co-chair of the Denali Commission. “So we definitely tried to expand our offerings a bit, and try to reach communities that we haven’t really been able to reach due to lack of funding in the last eight to 10 years. We put out a funding opportunity announcement with over $30 million available that was the first time that had been done in probably a decade.”
The 63 grant recipients splitting that $30 million include Nome’s Housing First project, a geothermal design project at Pilgrim Hot Springs, a Nome housing plot development project for the Village of Solomon, and a landfill expansion project at White Mountain.
New allocations continue to be announced for the bill, which was intended to be implemented over five years. Boyle said one aspect of the law he’s still excited about is the promised funding for Indian Health Services sanitation projects in the state.
“In an ideal world, we’ll make a significant dent, if not eliminate, the completely unserved category of villages,” he said.