Who’s managing the money: Behind the scenes with state infrastructure czars (Part 1)

After signing the bipartisan infrastructure package into law last November, the Biden administration urged the nation’s governors to appoint infrastructure coordinators — or czars — to help manage the $550 billion surge in funding.

We talked to one of those czars, Arkansas’s Becky Keogh, to see how implementation is going.
Secretary Becky Keogh / courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Energy & Environment

After signing the bipartisan infrastructure package into law last November, the Biden administration urged the nation’s governors to appoint infrastructure coordinators — or czars — to help manage the $550 billion surge in funding.

To date, 54 coordinators have been appointed (including in Washington, D.C., and U.S. territories), according to the administration. Much of the new money aimed at roads and bridges, electric vehicle infrastructure, broadband access expansion and more will flow to states based on formulas, but there are also competitive grant opportunities.

So how’s it going so far?

Pluribus News recently connected with two of the earliest-appointed czars. Our first conversation was with Arkansas’ coordinator, Becky Keogh, who chairs the governor’s infrastructure committee and also serves as secretary of the Arkansas Department of Energy and Environment. Our second was with Greg Patterson, Delaware’s infrastructure implementation coordinator, which you can read here.

(Note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Pluribus News: Last December, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) signed an executive order creating a 14-member Governor’s Infrastructure Planning Advisory Committee to recommend the best uses of federal funds under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. You were appointed to chair that committee. Give me a high-level overview of what has happened in the intervening months on this front.

Secretary Becky Keogh: We’ve met about four times since the executive order was formed to begin to talk about how to come together as a state on these issues. And help identify [how we can] build capacity to compete for some of the competitive grant [money] that is important to the state of Arkansas.

PN: Did you feel like the moment that law passed it was like the starting gun goes off and it’s a mad scramble — or do you feel like you have some time to do this?

Keogh: Initially we felt the sense of urgency. And we still do, there’s still a sense of urgency. We kind of talked about being on a racetrack and we were building the cars and trying to run the race at the same time. And we believe, in some cases, the federal government is doing the same thing. I think what we decided [is] we needed to kind of get our feet grounded. And we needed to establish a framework that was lasting for the state and would sustain our opportunities to get funding, but also establish ways that we can maximize the value of those investments.

PN: It was estimated in December that Arkansas would receive about $4 billion dollars in federal infrastructure dollars over the next five years, the vast majority of that for highway and bridge improvements. How much has your state received to date and how have those funds been allocated?

Keogh: I think we’ve had 27 applications to date from Arkansas requesting over $333 million in federal funds. The large portion of that is Arkansas DOT. They’ve requested about $276 million, and this is largely directed at roads, bridges and some of the major transportation needs of the state. I think we’ve only really seen four additional awards so far to date, about $17 million. So, while the money is coming, it’s coming slowly.

PN: The American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card gives Arkansas a D+ grade. Do you have a sense yet of how these federal infrastructure dollars will help your state begin to address those deficits?

Keogh: Well, that’s a really good point. We’re in a historic time where infrastructure needs are sorely required. It’s gonna be difficult to meet all those needs. It’s also difficult for [local] communities because all this money is coming at the same time. We’re working on, how do we build the workforce to do this work — and we’re competing with other states. So that’s one of the big issues we focused on. How can we combine projects so [that] we’re putting a new road in, we’re putting broadband and we’re putting our water lines in all at the same time, if we can. So, a lot of that coordinated thinking on the front end, that allows our workforce to basically do it once instead of multiple times.

PN: [According to ASCE], your state has about $7.4 billion in drinking water needs over the next couple of decades. Do you have any sense of how federal infrastructure dollars will help address that?

Keogh: I don’t think that we can meet all the needs, but I do believe through the monies that have come through [the American Rescue Plan Act], through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and now with the Inflation Reduction Act, and perhaps others, we can leverage those funds to maximize and meet the need of our communities. Arkansas is a state that’s blessed with water, we’re proud of the fact we have abundant water and clean water. But getting that to our citizens in the modern infrastructure that we need is important.

People are really focusing on the work and not the politics of it.

PN: Are there a couple of examples of competitive [infrastructure law] grants that you’re going after?

Keogh: I know that there’s some broadband grants that are being worked on. [A] hydrogen hub grant [with other states], that is one that we’ve spent a lot of time on through the Energy office. We have a well-plugging grant that’s gone in. [An electric vehicle] grant. I believe there’s a grant on battery recycling and battery repurposing.

PN: You’re doing this in a time of inflation, you’re doing this in a time of supply chain and staffing challenges. How are those myriad issues affecting your ability to spend this money to address the needs in your state?

Keogh: I think our committee is really trying to plan a pathway to address those challenges. We’ve got some best practices that we’re starting to share with other states and other states are sharing with us on how to address those, so that they don’t prevent us from successful goals that we’ve established.

PN: Has anything surprised you in the last year doing this work?

Keogh: I guess the best surprise is just how people are able to come together and identify needs quickly — and also solutions to some of these [challenges]. The creativity that’s been expressed by some of my counterparts and just working with local governments has been amazing to me. People are really focusing on the work and not the politics of it — just get the work done and get this moving forward. So, I’ve been really excited about it.

PN: So it does still feel like a once in a generation, or maybe once in two generations, opportunity?

Keogh: I always say it’s a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that we have the available funds. The challenge is to make sure we’re accountable to the taxpayer who’s going to be paying for this infrastructure for the long term.