President Biden has designated former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu to be the public face of infrastructure implementation, and, thus one of the key players in the success or failure of the Biden administrations first signature legislative program, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Landrieu is now a czar, as individuals appointed to certain federal administrative roles have been dubbed since the 1930s. The term brings to mind an omnipotent overlord, singlehandedly creating jobs and battling against waste, fraud, and abuse. Its a dubious distinction for a man who has no control over how the $1.2 trillion, the largest infrastructure expenditure since the 1954 Interstate Highway Act, gets spent.
The reality is more prosaic. Officially, the former Louisiana lieutenant governor and New Orleans mayor, whos been credited with the Crescent Citys cleanup and revitalization after the Katrina catastrophe, is the Biden administrations infrastructure investment coordinator and co-chairof the Infrastructure Implementation Task Force with National Economic Council Director Brian Deese. Also on the task force are the secretaries of Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Interior, Labor, and Transportation and the EPA administrator and the OMB and personnel management directors.
Presumably, former mayors are skilled at juggling a host of interests, having mediated among diverse political factions in city, county, and state governments, as well as the community residents and advocacy groups that line up on the multiple sides of a local project. (The IIJA task force counts two former mayors, two former governors, and a state environmental official among its members.) Landrieu is also the portal to experts who can deconstruct the IIJA, its associated regulations and interpretations and resolve the disputes that will invariably arise. Hell provide the guide to all the hoops that states and localities have to jump through to get to funds.
It will probably take a Ph.D. and a microscope to figure out infrastructure bill, says former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Whats the language; how will it work; how do you apply; whats the time between either asking for funds and their receipt? Or, as we might say in the neighborhood, when are you going to send me my money?
As ARRA and CARES both demonstrate, a major federal-state challenge facing Landrieu is that every dollar allocated does not translate into a dollar spent.
In 2009, Vice President Biden sent President Obama a memo outlining his views on managing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) better known as the Obama stimulus. The legislation called for the creation of a Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, with an implementation chief who could crack the whip and get things done, noted G. Edward DeSeve, a former OMB deputy director who ultimately became the ARRA implementation coordinator. Tasked with the programs rollout, Biden tapped DeSeve to set up a Recovery Implementation Office with small staff of federal employees who were assigned to field inquiries from states and localities. The vice president ordered that that questions from mayors and governors were to be answered in 24 hours.
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Landrieu has a concrete idea of what the architecture to run the program needs to look like.
While ARRA got bogged down in a lack of shovel-ready projects, it did establish a successful template to manage the program. According to DeSeve, having buy-in from both the president and vice president was crucial. Striving for transparency in the program by seeking the publics help in identifying wasteful or suspect practices minimized fraud, though it also slowed down the roll out of the stimulus. The availability of real-time financial information and technologies, such as geospatial mapping, helped residents understand how ARRA could help their neighborhoods. State and local officials were able to get to deputy secretaries and other federal Washington decision-makers to evaluate their projects, avoid problems up front, and absorb best practices from other localities.
The roll out of the massive emergency COVID package of 2020 was speedier than that of the 2009 stimulusit had to bebut was vexed by at least one problem that the stimulus had avoided. According to the National Academy of Public Administrations March 2021 study of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, the Treasury Department received high marks for administering and distributing the funds. But the agency got poor grades for failing to set up an office to handle communications between states, counties, federal agencies departments. The inability to respond to questions in a timely way sowed confusion and slowed down processes which could have been avoided with a minimum 24-hour response rule.
As ARRA and CARES both demonstrate, a major federal-state challenge facing Landrieu is that every dollar allocated does not translate into a dollar spent. About one-quarter of the monies powering the infrastructure bill are repurposed 2020 COVID-19 relief funds ($210 billion) and federal unemployment insurance funds returned by states ($53 billion).
Among the multiple ways the IIJA will distribute its funds, there are two conventional funding mechanisms: Formula funding grants are transmitted directly to state agencies; competitive grant programs pit municipalities against each other. About 40 percent of the funds will be distributed through 65 competitive grant programs, totaling some $76 billion; $120 billion is available through 16 programs through the formula funding.
States like Virginia have sophisticated data-driven processes that can make disbursement of federal funds easier. Its Smart Scale system ascribes values to particular transportation projects, which helps depoliticize funding decisions After meting out local assistance and maintenance funding, Virginia officials send monies to specific localities (known as construction districts), while high priority projects compete against others statewide. But the bottom line is that a 17-member-board that oversees the Virginias transportation department makes the final funding decisions, not Mitch Landrieu or any federal agency.
In other states, a governor, a political party, or even just one state lawmaker, can steer funding to pet projects or regions, even if that ignores the claims of rural towns and urban neighborhoods that have seldom received public investment because of historical patterns of discrimination. Rural communities are apprehensive about their IIJA prospects since they do not have dedicated staff to handle the federal grantmaking and lack the political heft to compete in state funding processes against larger towns and major cities. An infrastructure coordinator like Landrieu could potentially help those communities overcome such obstacles by signaling whether a particular use is in keeping with the federal intent for upgrades or new programs. What is the equity lens through which you are viewing your investment strategy? Show me the outcomes, says Nutter.
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What also might help those communities is the Justice40 initiative, an executive order Biden signed in January that mandates that disadvantaged communities receive 40 percent of federal investments in climate and clean energy investments and other new programs, such as an initiative to reconnect communities of color split by the interstate highway program.
Landrieus appointment, though generally well-received, raised some rumblings back home in his native New Orleans, where he served as mayor between 2010 and 2018. Following the announcement of Landrieus new post, actor Wendell Pierce, also a New Orleans native, tweeted his claim that Nothingno development initiated by his administration. [It was] Housing advocates, food security advocates, work force training by community organizations [that] provided progress in his absence. Landrieu was instrumental in steering federal dollars to the city after Katrina and championing wetlands resilience projects. But other ambitious projects never materialized during his tenure, among them the redevelopment a former amusement park into a new park or outlet mall. The failure to spend FEMA funds resulted in underfunded, belated, and hasty road improvement projects.
As mayor, Landrieu had little success in dealing with a perennial local headache, the poorlyrun New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, which is charged with maintaining citys drinking water and pump systems. The FBI recently raided the boards offices after a local television station uncovered employee licensing irregularities and paper-only record keeping. Landrieus successor, Mayor LaToya Cantrell, has criticized his stewardship of the agency.
Last week in Woodstock, New Hampshire, with one of the states structurally deficient bridges, as a backdrop, Biden outlined his expectations for Landrieu. Mitch is going to do what I had responsibility to do with the Recovery ActI was asked by the President to make sure the $900 billion that was being spent was, in fact, used well, he said. Well, guess what? We spent all that money. We built a whole awful lot of things and less than one tenth of 1 percent [subject to]waste or fraud. Thats going to be Mitchs job: making sure that everything gets out and it goes where its supposed to go.