Billions bound for MN: How will the infrastructure money get spent?

Submitted photo U.S. Senator Tina Smith

Last month, President Joe Biden signed the historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill into law. The MSR spoke with Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN) to find out how the bill will impact the lives of Minnesotans. 

MSR: How is this bill different from the proposed Build Back Better plan?

Smith: Well, I think that the Infrastructure Bill and Build Back Better go together. They’re sort of two parts of the important work that we have to get done. 

The Infrastructure Bill is gonna be a big deal for our state… It includes historic investments in transportation and in broadband, including in transit. 

What that means for Minnesota is billions of dollars that will come to help us improve and repair our road system. And it’ll mean dollars for, I’m sure now, transit, which is so important for getting people out to their work, into their jobs, and getting around their community, and much-needed investment. 

And I might just highlight the stuff, the work that we’ll be doing in broadband, to expand broadband, including helping to make broadband more affordable. There is a special program called the Digital Equity Act, which will end digital redlining, which is a real problem for poorer communities, marginalized communities when we find that the big cable companies just don’t serve them at the same level as they serve other communities. 

So that’s the infrastructure piece of it, but then the other part of it, which we are working on right now in the Senate, is Build Back Better, and that is really about lowering taxes for working people with the child tax credit. It’s about lowering costs for child care and prescription medicine and health care, and it is paid for by…having the richest people, and biggest corporations, pay their fair share. 

So it makes our tax system more fair. That is extremely important to making our economy work for everyone. I certainly think that’s not happening right now.

MSR: How far will this bill go in solving Minnesota’s infrastructure problems?

Smith: Well, this will allow us to repair and improve thousands of miles of roads. It will mean hundreds of millions of dollars to allow transit systems in the Twin Cities and also in regional centers around the state to improve their systems, replace old and outmoded buses. 

It includes resources for including electric buses, which I think is a really big deal. If you care about addressing the climate crisis and addressing problems of air pollution, this is gonna really be meaningful. I’m excited for what it’s going to mean. 

You know, we’ve had a long backlog of projects in this state that are worthy projects. Everyone agrees they need to get done, but we just haven’t had the money to do them. And that’s gonna change with the Infrastructure Bill that the president signed into law just a couple of weeks ago.

If you wouldn’t mind, there’s a couple of things that I think are particularly interesting that I want to highlight. In the Infrastructure Bill…let me put it this way. We know that in Minnesota, and all over the country, we have historically Black neighborhoods like the Rondo neighborhood that were just carved in half by interstate freeways that plowed right through those communities, just doing great damage. 

There is a fantastic effort in Rondo called Reconnect Rondo to reimagine how the neighborhood could be stitched back together. The infrastructure bill includes a billion dollars for helping projects like Rondo, helping to reconnect them. 

Rondo would be a great candidate for those dollars because they have an outstanding plan. The damage that was done to the neighborhood is so clear, and it’s such an opportunity to knit that back together. Reconnect Rondo has some great ideas for even covering up [I-94] as it goes through the Rondo neighborhood, and then using that covered-up space for arts and culture and small business and housing, which would be really exciting.

MGN

MSR: What areas in Minnesota would you say are struggling infrastructure-wise?

Smith: Well, it’s an issue throughout the state no doubt. We see challenges in city centers like Minneapolis, but we also see challenges in places like Duluth and Fargo-Moorhead, and Mankato. There has just been a real shortage of investment in our transit systems and transportation systems for decades. 

When it comes to broadband, people think a lot about how there are real gaps in connectivity for people living in rural communities. But I know from my many conversations that there are many, many folks that live in the central cities who can’t afford the broadband connection because it’s too expensive, or because they lack access to tablets for example or laptop computers. 

So those are the kinds of things that we are going to be able to fix with the bill that we signed into law just a couple weeks ago.

MSR: Do you know how the money will be disseminated in the state?

Smith: Well, if you take the transportation part of the bill, just as an example, the money will flow to the State and then to counties and cities through the traditional funding formulas that we have. There just will be more money. 

I like that because the projects that are prioritized are projects that the local community, whether it’s the City of Minneapolis or Hennepin County, have prioritized. And [they] are ready to go, so the dollars can be put to work right away. 

But beyond the traditional formula grant money, there also will be competitive grant dollars. That means that projects, for example like the Reconnect Rondo project, can submit grant applications and apply for those dollars. So of course, not everybody will get that, but I think that projects like Rondo would be in a really good place.

When it comes to broadband, we actually have a good program in Minnesota to distribute broadband dollars in partnership with local for-profit providers. I would expect that in Minnesota, it’ll be up to the governor. But I would expect that the governor would use his border-to-border broadband program to distribute those dollars because it’s a way of accessing help that communities are already used to.

MSR: To what degree will this bill address the housing crisis in Minnesota?

Smith: Well, we have a significant and pervasive shortage of housing, both affordable rental housing as well as affordable homeownership. The Build Back Better bill has a lot of help for housing. It’s gonna have $150 billion for housing. 

Of that, about $60 billion is gonna be invested in rehabbing public housing, which is the largest investment in rehabbing public housing that we’ve seen in history. And part of that will be resources to help with fire safety.

 I fought for that especially because of our experience with the Cedar High Rise fire that took Minnesota lives a couple of years ago. And it’s outrageous to me that high-rise apartment buildings like that didn’t have sprinkler systems. 

So what I made sure got included in the housing portion of the bill is resources to make sure that those public housing high rises, when they are getting rehabbed, are retrofitted with fire suppression and sprinkler systems.