Connecting state and local government leaders
President Biden’s top advisor on the $1.2 trillion package tells Route Fifty that 5,000 projects across the country are underway, and that the White House is meeting regularly with state infrastructure coordinators. He also knocked Republicans wavering on the transition to electric vehicles.
Mitch Landrieu, President Biden’s point person overseeing the rollout of the new federal infrastructure bill, told Route Fifty that there would be robust support for state and local officials trying to use some of the $1.2 trillion being doled out for public works.
“My mission,” Landrieu said, “is to run to the fire – not to wait for them to come to us – but for us to go to them.”
The assurances from the former New Orleans mayor came during a wide-ranging interview last week. In the discussion, Landrieu also criticized the Democratically controlled Congress for not doing more to fight climate change, chastised Republican critics for doubting the country’s ability to switch to electric vehicles, and downplayed the role that race would play in “equity” criteria for distributing new infrastructure dollars.
[To watch Route Fifty’s interview with Mitch Landrieu, CLICK HERE.]
Landrieu, though, gave a mostly buoyant account of the rollout of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act so far. He said the law had already prompted work on 5,000 projects in 3,200 counties across the country.
When it comes to helping state and local officials, Landrieu said that every governor in the country had appointed an infrastructure coordinator, something that Landrieu had urged them to do. (He also encouraged mayors to do the same.) The appointees, he said, were high-caliber officials with expertise in government.
The White House holds weekly calls with the state coordinators. It has also provided an “infrastructure school” to get them up to speed about the details of the federal law, Landrieu said.
Local governments can turn to those state coordinators for help navigating the many program requirements and application deadlines for federal grants, he added.
The White House is also working with philanthropic organizations to provide technical assistance to local governments. Several large foundations have agreed, he said, including the Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Emerson Collective, the Kresge Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
He also touted a 459-page guidebook the administration produced to list details of all the funding opportunities available through the infrastructure law. The administration put out similar publications focused on rural areas and tribal governments, too. “It’s based on the premise that you shouldn’t need a lobbyist to get to your government,” he said.
He acknowledged that inflation and workforce shortages are hampering efforts to repair, upgrade and build infrastructure, but he portrayed those as manageable problems.
But Landrieu said it was better to have to deal with that type of problem than other challenges state and local officials have had to deal with recently, such as when he had to lead the rebuilding efforts and economic revival in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or when he grappled with large budget deficits as lieutenant governor and a state lawmaker in Louisiana.
“The problem that you want to have is having so many jobs, that you have to find people to work,” he said. “When you’re faced with that one, that’s a good position to be in, because you know the future is bright if you can get the mousetrap right.”
To get more workers without driving inflation, Landrieu said, the country has to improve its workforce development systems. But he said much of that work would have to occur at the local level.
“It is a federal issue, but it’s a national problem,” he said. “Across the nation, in almost every county, you have a problem. The solution involves the federal government, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s a specific solution. So, for example, what you might do in Lake Charles, Louisiana, might be completely different from what you would do in Lowndes County, Alabama.”
Landrieu suggested that there could be national coordination in activities that were likely to take place across the country because of the law, such as installing broadband infrastructure, installing electric vehicle charging stations and improving the electric grid.
Several liberal lawmakers and outside advocates have criticized the infrastructure law for giving states broad discretion on how to spend their new transportation dollars, especially when it comes to highway spending. Congress has used similar arrangements for road funds for decades.
But critics say it allows states to keep building the kind of roads that lead to more greenhouse gas pollution, projects that disproportionately harm underrepresented communities and designs that have made American roads more dangerous than roads in other countries.
When asked what the federal government can do to make sure states and local governments don’t choose new projects that will increase carbon dioxide pollution, Landrieu instead touted aspects of the bill that support resilient infrastructure, the transition to electric vehicles and other environmental priorities.
The infrastructure law, he said, is “the largest investment in climate infrastructure in the history of the country.”
The day of the interview, Biden traveled to Massachusetts to announce several executive actions he would take to respond to the climate crisis. Landrieu also pointed to those initiatives to highlight the administration’s responsiveness.
“We have a very long way to go on climate, and the president wants Congress to get with it. Unfortunately, 50 Republicans and one Democrat have kind of gotten in the way of that,” Landrieu said, a week before U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, announced a deal with congressional leaders that could promote the production of renewable energy and the wider adoption of alternative fuel vehicles.
“What the president basically said today was: he’s not waiting anymore,” Landrieu said. “The president is going to take powerful executive action to make sure that we respond to what is in front of us today: Wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, floods [and] tornadoes. This president cannot wait on Congress anymore to pass legislation.”
Landrieu also dismissed criticism among several congressional Republicans who think the Biden administration’s goals for transitioning to electric vehicles are too ambitious. The administration wants half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric.
“What concerns me the most is the attitude of those folks who don’t think anything new is possible, and that America is doomed. They are just completely wrong,” Landrieu said. “It makes perfect sense when you’re building an entirely new system not to have every part in place when you start. But there’s no question right now where we’re going and when we’re going to get there as it relates to electric vehicles.”
Republicans in Congress and several states have also questioned the Biden administration’s attempts to use infrastructure money to address societal problems. Much of the controversy traces back to a December memo from the Federal Highway Administration that indicated the agency would promote projects that are “more equitable.”
As mayor, Landrieu attracted national attention for spearheading the removal of four Confederate monuments in New Orleans, arguing that they exacerbated racial divisions. “If we don’t want to be forever held back by our crushing history of institutional racism, it’s time to relegate these monuments to their proper place,” he wrote in 2017.
In his interview with Route Fifty, though, the White House adviser stressed that “equitable” infrastructure would not just benefit racial groups that have been long neglected.
“The term ‘equity’ is a term that’s designed to make sure that people who have been left behind and left out are included,” he said. “That clearly involves people of color – Black, brown and every other color on the rainbow in America. But it also means that people that live in rural areas – who may be white – as well have gotten left out. People who don’t have a college degree feel left behind and forgotten.”
“When [Biden] talks about equity, he talks about everybody,” Landrieu said. “Now some people want to make it about race. We absolutely have a problem with race in America that we have to work through. And the president has been working on that issue as well. But this bipartisan infrastructure bill is for everybody.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.