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Report Back: February 20, 2019 "White House Improving Infrastructure Listening Session"

Posted By Johanna M. Bell, Monday, February 25, 2019

The White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs held a listening session on improving infrastructure on Wednesday, February 20 with William F. Crozer, Special Assistant to the President/Deputy Director,  White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs and other senior staff. The purpose of the nationwide conference call was to hear from state and local elected officials about infrastructure priorities and ways to improve our nation’s infrastructure. 

Follow up information provided by the White House today includes the following:

I. Developing America’s Infrastructure – BUILD Grants

There is a lot of need for investments in infrastructure around the country. And so there is a lot of enthusiasm for the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD Transportation Discretionary Grant program. Previously known as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER Discretionary Grants, the program provides a unique opportunity for the DOT to invest in road, rail, transit and port projects that promise to achieve national objectives.

The number of applications for BUILD grants doubled in 2018. Of those, the number of applications for projects in rural areas increased 136 percent. 60 percent of the applications were for projects in rural areas. Over $1 billion of this BUILD funding will be distributed to 60 road projects. Historically, in this program 40 percent has gone to road projects.  In this round, 69 percent of the funds will go to road projects.

Prior to this Administration, only 21 percent of the funding in this infrastructure program — which dates back to 2009 — was awarded to rural areas. In the Department’s selections in FY2017 and 2018, an effort was made to re-balance the under-investment in rural communities – to address overlooked needs. And so, in the last round of the BUILD program, in which 60 percent of the applications were for rural projects, 62 projects were awarded to rural areas. As a result, more rural communities will benefit from significant improvements in access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation.

A number of these projects in rural areas will also concurrently support installation of broadband infrastructure — which is critical to economic competitiveness in the 21st century. Broadband access is something probably everyone this room takes for granted and can hardly imagine being without. But for millions of Americans in rural areas, broadband is a modern marvel still, literally, out of reach.

More information on the BUILD Grants can be found here.

II. Streamlining the Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects

Before construction can begin on an infrastructure project, it typically must comply with numerous Federal statutes overseen by multiple Federal agencies, making for a lengthy review process.  In August 2017, President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13807 addressing the need for a coordinated, predictable, and transparent Federal environmental review and authorization process for infrastructure projects while protecting public health, safety, and the environment. You can find the text of the Executive Order (here) and a White House Fact Sheet (here).

The order uses three key tools to improve the permitting process:

  • One Federal Decision — project sponsor concerns in navigating the Federal bureaucracy are addressed through a One Federal Decision (OFD) policy. Under OFD, a designated lead Federal agency works with other relevant cooperating Federal agencies to complete a single record of decision.
  • A Predictable Schedule — each major infrastructure project will have a permitting timetable for environmental reviews and authorizations, and agencies will be held accountable to those timetables through performance measures and financial penalties.  This will provide greater predictability to project sponsors and potential investors as to when a project review will be completed.
  • Shorter Review Times — the order establishes an average two-year goal across all agencies to process environmental reviews and authorizations for major infrastructure projects.

To comply with Executive Order 13807, on March 20, 2018, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) signed a Memorandum titled “One Federal Decision Framework for the Environmental Review and Authorization Process for Major Infrastructure Projects under Executive Order 13807.” The MOU can be found here. CEQ is the primary entity within the Executive Office of the President tasked with ensuring Federal agencies meet their obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). More information on CEQ can be found here. Pursuant to that Memorandum, federal agencies signed a subsequent MOU, which was announced on April 9, 2018. The MOU can be found here. Signatories to the MOU include the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Energy, and Homeland Security, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council.

For larger projects covered by FAST-41 and specific questions regarding permitting for infrastructure projects, please refer to the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council (FPISC) website at https://www.permits.performance.gov. Created under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, the Council is composed of agency Deputy Secretary-level members and chaired by an Executive Director appointed by the President. FAST-41 establishes new procedures that standardize interagency consultation and coordination practices. Importantly, FAST-41 creates a new authority for agencies to issue regulations for the collection of fees, which, if implemented, will allow the Council to direct resources to critical functions within the interagency review process. FAST-41 codifies into law the use of the Permitting Dashboard to track project timelines. Other FAST Act provisions that address the project delivery process and track environmental review and permitting milestones for transportation projects are set out in Title I and Title IX. Project sponsor participation in FAST-41 is voluntarily.”

III. Investing in Rural America

Rural Development

In April 2017, President Donald J. Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity to identify legislative, regulatory and policy changes that could promote agriculture and prosperity in rural communities. In January 2018, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Perdue presented the Task Force’s findings to the president. These findings included 31 recommendations to align the federal government with state, local and tribal governments to take advantage of opportunities that exist in rural America. Increasing investments in rural infrastructure, and increasing coordination of existing resources through partnerships and innovation are key recommendations of the task force.

To view the report in its entirety, please view the Report to the President of the United States from the Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity. In addition, to view the categories of the recommendations, please view the Rural Prosperity infographic. More information on the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity can be found here.

USDA Rural Development provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs in rural areas. This assistance supports infrastructure improvements; business development; housing; community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care; and high-speed internet access in rural areas. For more information, visit www.rd.usda.gov.

Rural Broadband

In his State of the Union address, President Trump promised to “deliver new and important infrastructure investment, including investments in the cutting edge industries of the future.” The need for infrastructure investment is particularly strong in rural America, where over 39 percent of Americans lack a sufficient broadband connection. To that end, the Trump Administration has been working to close this gap between urban and rural areas.

The Department of Commerce and USDA recently released the American Broadband Initiative Milestones Report, which outlines the Trump Administration’s vision and actions to increase broadband access across rural America. More than 20 agencies are working together on this initiative to remove barriers, streamline processes, and use Federal funds to improve broadband availability and access, including the Interior Department. Among the key actions that the Administration is taking are (i) Preparing to deploy $600 million on an rural broadband pilot program (more information below), (ii) Mapping more than 7,000 Interior Department towers across America to help providers expand broadband service, and (iii) Streamlining the federal permitting process to develop broadband infrastructure.

More on the Rural Broadband Pilot Program

 In December, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is offering up to $600 million in loans and grants to help build broadband infrastructure in rural America. Telecommunications companies, rural electric cooperatives and utilities, internet service providers and municipalities may apply for funding through USDA’s new ReConnect Program to connect rural areas that currently have insufficient broadband service.

USDA will make available approximately $200 million for grants (applications due to USDA by April 29), as well as $200 million for loan and grant combinations (applications due May 29), and $200 million for low-interest loans (applications due by June 28). For additional information, see page 64315 of the Dec. 14 Federal Register (PDF, 255 KB).

For more information, please visit USDA’s ReConnect Loan and Grant Program. You can find information there on how to apply for grants, eligible applicants, etc. 

More on Community Connect Grants

In addition to the ReConnect Loan and Grant Program, USDA also offers other grant programs, like Community Connect Grants, designed to help fund broadband deployment into rural communities where it is not yet economically viable for private sector providers to deliver service. More information on Community Connect Grants can be found here. Note that the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) will host webinars focused on the Community Connect Grant Program on February 26th from 2:00 to 3:00 pm EST and March 7th from 10:00 to 11:00 am EST. For more information see the Webinar flyer.

IV. Promoting Resiliency

The Administration understands how important it is to develop a continuously adaptive and holistic approach to mitigation and resilience.  In the face of the most complex and dynamic threats that the nation has seen in decades, it is imperative that we be able to anticipate potential disruptions and adapt to them before they cause harm to Americans.  Having just endured two of the worst years for natural disasters on record, we are faced with the effort of rebuilding disaster impacted communities in a way that will mitigate potential harm for decades to come.  To do so, we must harness the remarkable capabilities of our public, private, and non-governmental sectors towards a shared purpose of enhanced resilience while leveraging the resolve of the American people, using American materials, and American labor. 

State and local governments are uniquely equipped to be a galvanizing force towards this goal.  It will require foresight and planning to understand how to engage their communities in long term efforts addressing a variety of risks they face.

By promoting Pre-Disaster Mitigation and signing the Disaster Recovery Reform Act into law, a deliberate approach of addressing our vulnerabilities before disasters strike was made by President Trump.

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