What’s in it for the region in the infrastructure bill?
By Jenni Monet
The road from Teller to Nome was in pretty bad shape the day Senator Lisa Murkowski met with Iñupiat leaders. “It was so bad they wouldn’t let us drive all the way to Nome,” she said. But the lawmaker went for a bumpy ride, anyway—a sampling of the 73-mile-long unpaved road that’s cracking and caving at a costly pace.
That was three summers ago, and since then, maintenance crews have struggled to keep up. Sinkholes and wash-outs are getting worse as water undermines the road and frozen soil softens, an unsettling of Arctic permafrost that is becoming less and less permanent. Murkowski now has a multi-billion dollar solution—an infrastructure bill that she championed, addressing everything from roads to waterways, and even climate change.
The $1.2-trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act was endorsed by President Joe Biden, November 15. Murkowski was among a bipartisan group of senators—five Democrats and five Republicans—who negotiated the bill’s final passage. By almost any other measure, the legislation is unrivaled. Not only will it raise federal infrastructure spending to its highest baseline, roughly $500 billion across ten years, but it will also touch upon every sector: transportation, water, energy, and broadband, while not overlooking Alaska Native villages like Teller. Indian Country alone stands to gain $11 billion in allocations.
As implementation of the spending package begins to carry out, most officials in Nome and beyond are reticent about future plans. “It’s all up in the air,” said Calvin Schaeffer Superintendent of the Western District, Alaska State Department of Transportation.
In August, after heavy rains hammered the region for seven straight days, Schaeffer found himself on the beleaguered Bob Blodgett Nome–Teller Highway mostly alone. Chronic understaffing at the DOT had made roadwork that week particularly trying. Even before the storm, repairs on the highway were long overdue, a problem brought by a department with six vacancies but without any applicants to fill them.
Whether the infrastructure bill can help solve competitive wage hurdles on top of a chronic housing shortage in Nome is anyone’s guess; the bill doesn’t explicitly address such challenges. But Schaeffer is hopeful. “We’re anticipating funding for new projects,” he said. “But the road to Teller is our top priority.”
Across the Bering Strait region, government officials, and even a mining executive, have been meeting with Sen. Murkowski and other lawmakers, who are working to make sense of the billions of dollars earmarked for Alaska-specific projects, including $3.5 billion in highway funding, and at least $100 million more for the deployment of broadband services. An additional $180 million has been set aside for water and wastewater projects, and $230 million for the EPA Alaska Native Villages Grant Program.
But it’s the dedicated $2.25 billion allocated for national port infrastructure that captured the attention of Nome’s Mayor John Handeland. Top of mind, he said, is the city’s estimated $665 million port expansion. “It’s definitely not a project that we can build-out of our piggy banks,” he said. Certain components of project are cost-shared with other entities, like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
After meeting with Murkowski over Zoom last week, Handeland said he now has his eye on a more specific program: the $250 million set aside for remote and subsistence harbor construction. With grant programs expected to be highly competitive, he’s hoping Nome can hold an edge. “Nome’s project is the furthest along as far as development and getting to constructability. And so I think we’re in a very good position to benefit from the provisions of that particular part of the legislation,” he said.
Perhaps the most interesting talks to evolve around the infrastructure bill are the Washington D.C. discussions that took place among members of Alaska’s congressional delegation and the president and CEO of Graphite One, Incorporated Anthony Huston. Graphite One, an exploration company, is proposing to develop a graphite mine about 70 miles from Nome on the northern slope of the Kigluaik mountains. Exploratory drilling took place again this summer and a preliminary feasibility study could be released soon.
“I’m extremely excited,” Huston said of the bill’s passage and described his talks with lawmakers as “getting our heads around what needs to get done.” Beyond that, he offered few other details.
In an interview with The Nome Nugget, Senator Murkowski made clear that public funding would not be allocated to the Canadian company. Graphite One aims to become an American producer of high-grade coated spherical graphite to make lithium-ion electric car batteries, among other energy storage systems. Both Murkowski and Huston like to remind that currently all graphite used in America is imported from China.
“There are no funding accounts for interests for the mine or mining activity,” said Murkowski. Rather, the senator said language in the bill specifically spells out an energy-related permitting process that is less cumbersome and more straightforward.
“Permitting can be frustratingly long,” she said. “So what we did is we put in place a permitting process that is more transparent, and more clear as to the timelines involved for greater predictability.”
Twyla Thurmond from Shishmaref, located on the eroding barrier island of Sarichef off the Chukchi Sea, said legislation that could help streamline the bureaucratic process for Alaska Native communities threatened by the effects of the worsening climate crisis would be helpful, as well. But such focus is not included in the infrastructure bill.
What has been earmarked—around $130 million for community relocation projects and $86 million for climate resiliency efforts—are pots of funding to be shared with hundreds of tribes and villages, nationwide. As many as 31 Indigenous communities in Alaska, alone, are imminently threatened by coastal erosion. It makes the grant process more than aggressive. For Thurmond, it’s oppressive. “There needs to be fairness and order to how the money is shelled out,” she said. “Some communities are larger than others. Some are more critically endangered. Yet they are having to fight for funds because, for the most part, they’re competitive.”
These problems aren’t new to Sen. Murkowski. “This is a concern that we continue to hear,” she said. “But it’s not as if we’re going to be able to fund a grant writer into every community with every tribe. That’s not a possibility.”
Instead, Murkowski is encouraging officials across agencies and governments, including tribal advocates, to participate in a grant symposium slated for sometime next year. “There are ways that we can turn to better networking, through better collaborative approaches,” she said.
For Thurmond, the issue boils down to precious time. Three years ago, the same summer Murkowski visited Teller, a violent storm came crashing down on Shishmaref, destroying the only road to the village dump. It became impassable, and later a health hazard. Honey bucket waste began piling up by the day. Thurmond secured a disaster declaration from FEMA. But such support was short-lived.
“FEMA was able to fix what was damaged, but wasn’t allowed to provide additional funds to prevent it from happening again,” Thurman said. For that, it would take an entirely different stream of funding caught up in a system that has yet to prioritize a warming Arctic.
Senate Democrats may have an opportunity to amend things with a vote to approve a roughly $2 trillion package with larger commitments to climate change mitigation and adaptation. But it would largely be muscled through without GOP support. Not even Sen. Murkowski backs the bill which aims to get passed by Christmas.
Lost in the politics are villages like Shishmaref.
“It weighs kind of heavy on my heart because there are so many communities right now that are facing these climate change impacts,” said Thurmond. “It’s an emergency.”