State, Local Officials Play Vital Role in Infrastructure

Rural road
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Operating nearly half of all U.S. public roads, counties play a vital role delivering transportation projects funded by the federal $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told local municipal officials.

“The great risk with any deployment of taxpayer funding is the risk of not seeing $1.2 trillion of value delivered to the American people,” Buttigieg said, referring to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law.

He spoke in a question-and-answer session Feb. 14 with Larry Johnson, president of the National Association of Counties, during the group’s 2022 Legislative Conference in Washington.

Counties own and operate nearly 50% of all public roads and four out of 10 bridges in the nation, which makes counties more responsible for managing this infrastructure compared with any other level of government, according to NACo.

Buttigieg acknowledged that very few of the public works targeted by Biden’s infrastructure law are owned and operated by any federal agency. Counties invest more than $134 billion annually in building infrastructure and maintaining and operating public works.

BUTTIGIEG TALKS TO TT: Watch replay of Jan. 19 Newsmakers program

“We will deliver the funding. We will set the standards. We will establish the partnerships and then it will be up to the state and local leaders to actually make it happen,” said Buttigieg. “We can’t do it without you … but with you we will have a safer, cleaner, more equitable and more economically powerful transportation system in this country.”

Buttigieg, formerly mayor of South Bend, Ind., added the American people need state and local officials to deliver projects “on time, on task and on budget” with all programs to do the procurement, hiring and prioritization. “We have to put this taxpayer money to work so that everybody feels the benefit.”

READ MORE: Guidebook Aims to Help Communities Tap Infrastructure Funds

Federal agencies, Buttigieg said, also must be user-friendly to help local governments access federal funds. At the same time, county officials need to identify their top priorities to state and federal officials.

Seventy percent of the counties in the United States are rural. Officials in rural counties don’t have the staff to handle federal funding requests and write grants as easily as larger cities.

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the complex situation that state and municipal officials face, he added.

“If you’re in local government, you’re in the business of having to manage things you don’t necessarily own or you end up doing things that you don’t necessarily control,” he said. “Never has that been more true than in the last two years.”

Counties can access the Biden administration’s transportation funds, which account for more than 50% of its allocations for new investments, in three main ways:

  • Competitive federal grant programs
  • Population-based sub-allocations from state departments of transportation
  • Federal formulas such as those for transit

In November when the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act became law, NACo’s Johnson attended the signing ceremony at the White House.

“The bipartisan infrastructure package invests in locally owned infrastructure,” Johnson stated. “Counties across the country are ready to move forward on long-overdue infrastructure projects that will help our residents and communities thrive.”

Because county officials are key intergovernmental partners, NACo officials will be important in successfully interpreting the infrastructure law, which requires “meaningful and ongoing engagement between officials at all levels of government.”

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