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How could the infrastructure bill affect Idaho? It’s more than roads and bridges

Idaho

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There are many details to iron out about the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15, but mayors in Idaho cities large and small already have plenty of ideas for how the funds could improve their communities.

The $1.2 trillion bill was supported by 19 Republicans in the U.S. Senate, including Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, while Reps. Russ Fulcher and Mike Simpson voted against it.

It is the largest infusion of federal dollars in infrastructure in nearly a century, and Idaho is expected to receive more than $2 billion for roads and bridges, $355 million for clean water projects and $24 million for climate change preparation, according to previous reporting from States Newsroom. Idaho will also receive $192 million for public transportation and $86 million for airports.

Idaho mayors hope funding will increase broadband capabilities

Infrastructure is often thought of as mainly roads and bridges, and while those are important in Idaho, so are investments in utilities like high-speed internet — and those pieces are in the bill as well.

According to the White House, Idaho will receive a minimum of $100 million for broadband internet infrastructure, which is meant to provide access to at least 53,000 residents who lack broadband capability.

At the state level, Idaho has already made significant investments in broadband infrastructure, including nearly $50 million in 2020 and $45 million in 2021 with support from Gov. Brad Little and Republican and Democratic legislators across Idaho.

The federal bill will also provide more than 450,000 eligible Idahoans with the Affordability Connectivity Fund, a subsidy for low-income families to help with the cost of internet access.

That’s important to mayors like Hyrum Johnson of Driggs and Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper, who view internet access as a public utility as important as electricity. And in Idaho Falls, it actually is offered through the city as a public utility called the Idaho Falls Fiber Network. Residents can still choose a private company as a service provider, but Casper said many residents are opting for the city’s network instead.

Casper said the city has a five-year buildout plan for the entire community to have access to the broadband connections, but that goal could be achieved faster with an infusion of federal dollars. But the city may be a victim of its own success in this regard, according to Casper. While some cities have been able to use American Rescue Plan Act dollars for broadband efforts, Idaho Falls was told it shouldn’t use those dollars for broadband efforts because the city already has a good system in place.

“I’m nervous they’re going to tell us the same with this money,” Casper said.

In Driggs, Johnson said a grant from the CARES Act in 2020 allowed the city to increase its fiber coverage from about 30% to 80% of households, and by the end of the calendar year it could be close to 100%. Driggs was also one of the first cities in Idaho to have gigabit internet access.

“We actually had businesses coming here specifically because of the broadband access that we have,” Johnson said. “We’ve got a lot of outdoor amenities, but now someone can start or move a business here, and they can live here … and it really is kind of rounding out … the amenity offering to those who would like to live here but have previously felt like it was an impediment to working and playing in the same place.”

But the price for internet in Driggs is still higher than the national average, and Johnson hopes funding from the infrastructure bill will help more low-income households in his city with access. He’d also like to see more publicly available hotspots for Wi-Fi around town.

“We have a few in our parks, but I’d like to see them ubiquitously available to whoever needs them,” he said. “That would help that group of people who just aren’t able to afford the monthly payment.”

Water issues are top of mind for Idaho mayors

Many cities across Idaho have grappled with water infrastructure issues in recent years, some more serious than others. Casper said Idaho Falls is one of the largest cities in the western area of the United States that does not meter its water, and because the city is in a drought-susceptible area of Idaho, she said they need to think about metering to conserve water resources. One of the biggest barriers to that goal is the cost of installing meters for homes that are already built.

“Anything (built) prior to 2008, we have to dig up a lot to install them, and that is rather cost-prohibitive,” Casper said. “So we’ve got work to do there, and it would be wonderful if we had these dollars to help with that.”

Johnson said the stormwater system in Driggs needs to be more resilient in preparation for climate change as storms become more severe and cause more flooding. The city is also designing a new water tank, and needs to relocate outfall for its wastewater plant because there is too much ammonia in the water, which has negative effects on aquatic animals.

“It’s millions of dollars across the spectrum,” Johnson said.

“We can’t just look at our current needs. We have to be looking not just six months or six years, but 60 years down the road. We have to have that long-range vision and be executing things now with that in mind.”

Voters in the city of Boise recently approved a $570 million sewer bond to replace its aging infrastructure, and city staff told BoiseDev they could borrow less from residents if more federal grants can be secured for the project.

Funds could be used to prepare for wildfires and other climate change effects in Idaho

Idaho will receive $24 million over five years for wildfire prevention and protection, including grants for community wildfire defense, thinning of trees and controlled burns and firefighting resources. The state will also see an allocation from the Weatherization Assistance Program, a program that receives $3.5 billion from the bill to reduce energy costs for more than 700,000 low-income households across the country by increasing the energy efficiency of homes.

Ryan McGoldrick, program coordinator for climate, clean energy and transportation programs at Conservation Voters of Idaho, said those efforts are particularly important as cities work to decrease emissions and mitigate the effects of climate change.

“That energy efficiency is huge, because it lowers your emissions and it lowers your bill, and the payback on it is huge with some of the really simple energy efficiency upgrades,” McGoldrick said. “It creates local jobs, too, because you’re doing that work in the actual community.”

The bill also includes $30 million over the course of five years to support electric vehicle charging infrastructure networks, as well as the opportunity to apply for $2.5 billion in grant funding dedicated to electric vehicle charging.

Buried further in the bill is $5 billion for electric school buses, which McGoldrick said would be a great improvement for students and bus drivers, who breathe in the diesel fumes from existing buses.

“That poor air quality can lead to asthma and other health impacts” and may be linked to lower attendance and test scores, he said. “So making sure we’re not exposing our children to those toxic fumes on their way to school is a huge deal.”

Schools would save money in the long run with electric buses as well, McGoldrick said, but the up-front cost to purchase the buses and the charging infrastructure is high. Federal government grants would remove that up-front cost barrier.

Using the federal funds will be about long-term planning, Idaho mayor says

Johnson is finishing out his second term as mayor of Driggs and handing the keys to August Christensen, a member of Driggs City Council who bested Johnson in the election earlier this month by 57 votes. Johnson said he was disappointed by the result, but he has confidence that city staff will do what needs to be done regarding infrastructure projects.

“We have facility plans chock full of projects that are needed both from a standpoint of aging infrastructure as well as expanding to accommodate the growth in our community that we’re seeing,” Johnson said. “We can’t just look at our current needs. We have to be looking not just six months or six years, but 60 years down the road. We have to have that long-range vision and be executing things now with that in mind.”

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