Congress may be smiling on rural America!
Government officials in rural America are more “anxious” than “eager” to hear details of the long-awaited $1 trillion Trump infrastructure plan. There’s no way to know how much, if any, will actually trickle down to small and rural areas. Spokespersons for the administration say rural America will not be overlooked but there is still angst because capturing federal and state funding has always been challenging for rural communities.
Some of the concern comes from not knowing what to expect. Additional concern is generated by announcements about changes to long-standing federal infrastructure programs that have allocated funds to rural areas in the past.
The president’s proposed 2018 budget suggested the elimination of funding for a program of particular interest to rural communities – TIGER Grants. The official name is Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. Rural areas rely heavily on funding from this program for new infrastructure construction as well as improvements to existing infrastructure.
Recent TIGER grant allocations have been a lifesaver for many smaller communities. A $20.8 million grant was awarded for a $50 million rural project that included the purchase of hundreds of transit vehicles. Another grant of $10 million went to Live Oak, Calif., for a road project that will result in making it easier for residents of the rural area to connect with education, employment and other essential services. And, $6.8 million was awarded to provide improved communications, scheduling and dispatch services of more than 30 rural transit service areas in Ohio.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced recently that the former FASTLANE grant program will now be called the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) program. The new INFRA program will have revised funding criteria and that concerns rural officials. Now, the program will place an emphasis on projects that leverage non-federal funds, projects that include private-sector capital and other specific types of projects. The DOT says it recognizes that private-sector investment is not a one-size-fits-all solution and that securing private investment in rural projects is often difficult, but the criteria has been changed anyway.
Good news, however, includes a promised expansion of rural broadband Internet service. The federal government hopes to address the digital divide that exists between rural and urban areas. And, earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) awarded four loans to help provide broadband service in rural areas of four states. One award included a $24.8 million loan to a Texas telephone cooperative to construct 568 miles of fiber and install equipment that will provide rural areas with access to high-speed Internet, health care, educational and business services.
The House Appropriations Committee drafted an agricultural appropriations bill that prohibits the removal of funding for a USDA program that provides revenue for rural water and sewer projects. Discretionary funding in the bill also includes $2.6 billion for rural development – so that is good news.
Officials in rural America, however, have become some of the first adapters of public-private partnerships. Many have creatively found ways to consolidate projects and secure private-sector investment. It appears that they don’t intend to wait and place all their trust in federal funding.
There are a lot of question marks regarding funding for rural America. It is not possible to know how the country’s rural areas will fare in the upcoming funding wars, but there are strong indications that rural America has the support of a large segment of Congress.