Projects Line Up for Infrastructure Funds
Swalling General Contractors crew on the Chatanika Bridge.
Alaska will benefit more than any other state from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), in the view of Kati Capozzi, president and CEO of the Alaska Chamber. At a briefing organized by the US Chamber of Commerce, Capozzi expressed thanks to the state’s delegation to Congress for ensuring that Alaska-specific measures are included in the bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden on Monday.
$5.3 billion for Alaska
While many states are rebuilding their crumbling roads, bridges, ports, and airports, Alaska has yet to build such infrastructure in the first place, according to Alicia Amberg, executive director of Associated General Contractors. “We didn’t have a shot at that first round of funding very early on,” she says.
In terms of scale, the IIJA is comparable to the creation of interstate highways in the ‘50s. Robert Venables, executive director of the Southeast Conference, says much of Alaska’s original infrastructure dates to that era, prior to statehood, so now is the time for updates and expansion.
Alaska is in line to receive a 43 percent increase in highway funding, with a pot of $3.8 billion available. Another $225 million would go toward replacing and repairing bridges. The twenty-six major airports in Alaska can split $392 for improvements. Public transit systems will receive $362 million. For water utilities, the IIJA provides $368 million (toward an estimated $987 million gap in funding for drinking and wastewater systems statewide). The IIJA includes $100 million to help connect Alaska communities to broadband internet, plus $11 million to protect existing networks from cyberattacks. And another $19 million is meant for fire resiliency.
All totaled, the IIJA guarantees at least $5.3 billion for Alaska, with the possibility of more through need-based grant programs. Those funds will be doled out over the next decade. “This bill is not a stimulus bill,” says Marty Durbin, senior vice president of policy for the US Chamber. Unlike the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or more recent COVID-19 rescue packages, the goal is not to pump federal cash into the economy quickly but to complete long-deferred projects.
“Our disappointment is over,” Durbin adds.
Among the 2,000 or so pages of the IIJA, Capozzi highlights fifteen that address one of the obstacles to boosting Alaska’s economy, a provision called One Federal Decision. “What it does is effectively decreases the federal permitting timeline… to no more than two years,” she says. That compares to sometimes a minimum of ten years. As Capozzi explains, the new law mandates “a readable review document with page limits and the production of a timely record of decision within ninety days of the agencies finishing the review of the document.” That review is simplified by different federal agencies creating a joint schedule, with one assigned to lead them all, working in parallel instead of sequentially.
Capozzi says permitting hurdles have slowed infrastructure projects, beyond the availability of funding. Passage of the bill is a signal, according to Amberg, that there is work on the way for her contractors.
Better Get Ready
When the infrastructure dollars start flowing in, Alaska must be ready with materials and labor. Amberg hopes current supply chain bottlenecks will level out by the time steel, concrete, and asphalt projects take shape. Labor, however, will require some effort.
“As we get closer to realizing the major portion of the funds,” Amberg says, “it will certainly be important for Alaska to prioritize workforce development, encouraging careers in construction and opportunities for other jobs.”
That’s already been happening, says Bruce Bustamonte, president and CEO of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. “The state Department of Labor has invested in an apprenticeship program, so those will probably gain legs and move a little faster now that we have investment and work opportunities out there,” he says. He expects trade schools will ramp up their training, and the military also has a role in preparing a construction workforce.
Meanwhile, it’s up to the state and local governments to prioritize which projects get built first. Venables points out that the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has a community transportation plan, and the Alaska Municipal League is working with local and tribal planning agencies to make a list of projects. Durbin adds that Alaska is in good shape because “localities have been doing their homework to make sure they’re ready for the funds, when they’re there.”
Amberg recognizes that lining up IIJA-funded projects will take years. Additional money is available in the form of grants, which must be applied for. Bustamonte hopes the Port of Alaska can access some of that extra funding, not only to improve a key piece of infrastructure but because the port is the gateway for imported materials, like cement, necessary for every other project to go forward.
“We’ve been held up really a lot over the last few years, as far has having, you know, reasonable or sizeable capital investments in the state,” he says, but the IIJA is “a big win.”
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