MRCTI Initiative To Help Cities Access Infrastructure Funding
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law by President Joe Biden in November, is pushing a “tsunami” of federal funding out the door during the next five years. The Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative (MRCTI), a coalition of cities along the Mississippi River corridor, announced a major new initiative March 9 to help its member cities navigate the process of accessing that IIJA funding with free consulting services offered by its partners. The initiative is a consulting service, free to dues-paying MRCTI members, to help them prepare grant applications, gather data and provide documentation, and navigate the grant process.
MRCTI Executive Director Colin Wellenkamp made the announcement March 9 during the 10th Capitol Event of the group, which was held virtually as a webinar. The event was held remotely in several locations because the federal workforce in Washington, D.C., was transitioning back to offices during the week after more than a year of working remotely, Wellenkamp said.
The IIJA funding, spread out over the next five years, will come in five separate funding cycles, offering many chances for communities in need of infrastructure investments. Some grants will come through federal agencies. Others will be given to states that have their own competitive grant programs. About $75 billion of total IIJA funding is targeted toward the Mississippi River corridor. More money is available through individual grant programs that cities and towns could apply for, in the form of both “formula” and competitive grants
Partners in the new facility include Quantified Ventures, Two Degrees Adapt and Baton Rouge-based engineering and consulting firm CSRS.
Guest presenters at the MRCTI event included high-level officials from the White House, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation and Corps of Engineers. Mitch Landrieu, former mayor of New Orleans and now President Biden’s senior adviser on IIJA disbursement, offered what he called a “50,000-foot view” of the act and its potential.
Landrieu said the IIJA is the single biggest infrastructure investment project in the nation’s history. “This is even bigger than Eisenhower’s federal highway program [in the 1950s], because it affects every type” of infrastructure, he said. “It’s designed to touch every part of the country and win the future.”
Landrieu said his IIJA instructions from Biden had three parts: “Herd all the cats, get the money to the ground, and tell the story” of how it’s being spent. He said his main mission is to get local, state and federal authorities all working together to make sure the money is spent expeditiously and efficiently. “We’ve pushed out $110 billion in the last 100 days,” he said, but cautioned, “You guys are building 90 percent of this stuff, not us.”
He said roughly half the money would be disbursed through the Department of Transportation for “hard infrastructure” projects including ports, roads and bridges. The other half will be channeled through 13 federal agencies, with five or six dominating, including the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency, with the Commerce Department as the “lead dog.” A lot of this funding is targeted toward projects like Superfund cleanup projects, cleaning up abandoned orphan oil and gas wells and lead abatement.
Another way to look at it, he said, is that about half the money will be dedicated to “formula” funding, with the other half going to competitive grant programs.
The White House is playing a key role in steering the grants, through its Council on Environmental Quality, Landrieu said. Wellenkamp noted that one of MRCTI’s “asks” when the bill was being crafted was that a central coordinating person direct the funding streams from the White House. A “screening tool” is currently available for public comment through April that was developed by the CEQ. Landrieu said a 481-page booklet has been published detailing all the programs and how to apply to them.
During question-and-answer sessions, several mayors asked whether and how federal agencies will score applications, and whether their scoring would change. When scoring applications, Landrieu said Biden had instructed his agencies to use four “lenses.”
1) Use made-in-America products and services;
2) Assess projects for climate resilience and sustainability;
3) Ensure that union jobs can be part of the project—or at least “good-paying” jobs where that is not possible; and
4) Use a “diversity and equity” lens that assesses a project’s impact on underserved communities.
Wellenkamp laid out a rough timeline suggesting how cities or towns should go about applying for the funding. Imagine “adding another 30 percent to your infrastructure budget each year for the next five years,” he advised mayors. He recommended that every city or township form a special working group focused on applying for the funds, with inputs from many departments including ports, parks and recreation and wildlife departments.
The working group should make a prioritized list of needs, then “map” the provisions of the IIJA to see which needs fit with which programs. Next, the team should devise an application strategy. “A single application can take up to 500 man-hours of work; it can be very labor-intensive,” he cautioned. The new MRCTI facility team members will help with data gathering and processing and documentation but cannot file applications themselves.
Congressman Ron Kind was the keynote speaker on the event’s first day. A tireless advocate for the Mississippi River and inland waterways, Kind is retiring from Congress after representing Wisconsin’s 3rd District for 25 years. As a senior member of the House of Representatives, Kind sits on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Kind spoke of having a “Huck Finn childhood” on the Mississippi River in LaCrosse, Wis.
Kind praised MRCTI, saying, “You mayors are where democracy hits the road.” He said the achievements of the IIJA were “years in the making” and credited the waterways industry for much of its success. “I’ve never met an industry more willing to step up with user fees to get things done” on the rivers, he said.
UMRR And NESP
Kind provided a sidelight on a question that came up during the Q&A sessions, on the relationship between two separately funded ecological programs for the Upper Mississippi River. The Upper Mississippi River Restoration Program, authorized by the Water Resources Development Act of 1986, was the first environmental restoration and monitoring program developed for a large river system in the United States. Later, the Navigation and Ecosystem Sustainability Program was authorized in 2007 but remained unfunded until passage of the IIJA, which fully funded it. Some MRCTI members questioned whether UMRR was intended to be “folded in” to NESP, and they asked whether that would happen now that NESP was fully funded.
Susan Wilson, deputy district engineer for programs and project management for the St. Louis Engineer District, said, “At this time, NESP funding does not affect UMRR, and UMRR will continue unchanged.” Kind elaborated on that answer when he said he didn’t want the two programs merged. He and his staff had worked up datasets that apply only to the UMRR program, and he didn’t want to merge them.
Ducks Unlimited Partnership
On the event’s last day, Wellenkamp announced a partnership between MRCTI And Ducks Unlimited that will involve dedicating hundreds of acres around Grafton, Ill., for wetlands to absorb future flood waters. Grafton Mayor Mike Morrow, a 35-year Corps of Engineers veteran, noted that Grafton has no levees and faces the Mississippi River, making it vulnerable to flooding. This project is only one of many similar projects along the Mississippi River corridor that will be further detailed at MCRTI’s September meeting in St. Louis, Wellenkamp said.