Who’s managing the money: Behind the scenes with state infrastructure czars (Part 2)

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. Pluribus News recently connected with two of the earliest-appointed czars. Our second conversation was with Greg Patterson, Delaware’s infrastructure implementation coordinator.
Greg Patterson, Delaware’s infrastructure coordinator (Courtesy of Gov. John Carney’s office)

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, which you can read here. Our second, below, was with Greg Patterson, who was appointed by Gov. John Carney (D) to serve as Delaware’s infrastructure implementation coordinator.

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

Pluribus News: How much does Delaware expect to get in federal infrastructure funds? And what are the big buckets that money would go into?

Greg Patterson: Our expectation is about $2 billion over five years probably. The biggest chunk of that, about $1.6 billion, is transportation. After transportation, the next biggest bucket is water. On the drinking water side, it’s about five times as much money each year for the next five years as we traditionally have gotten. On the clean water side, which is both wastewater systems and stormwater systems, it’s about twice as much money.

When you talk about areas where this is going to make a big difference, that is one of the areas that I’ve really keyed in on. We have rural communities, especially manufactured housing communities, that are still on wells, that are still on septic systems. And we have talked in this state for a long time about how to address those, and this funding is a way to do it.

Our third biggest bucket is broadband. We’ll get $100 million or maybe a little bit more, and we’ll be able to use that to connect up every home in Delaware over the next several years.

PN: Besides broadband and besides the water funding, are there any other examples of potential game-changers for your state?

Patterson: Weatherization is one of the big ones. We’ve always had a stream of money from the federal government to weatherize low-income homes. And that program has been for Delaware a little less than a million dollars a year administered through our Energy Office. We’re getting $10 million now. And that will allow us to expand from single-family homes into multifamily residences, apartment buildings, and extend that weatherization and the energy cost savings that go with it to a whole new group of residents. That’s game-changing.

PN: In this first year, what surprised you or represented an unexpected challenge?

Patterson: The challenge of this is just how many programs are involved. It’s 375 different funded programs. Luckily for me as the only guy in the governor’s office focused on this, Delaware isn’t going to benefit from all of them. For us, it’s 150 or so that I think we will be able to apply for. It is taking a while for these programs to get stood up. It feels like it’s taken a long time. And yet you’re now seeing several opportunities a week, multiple opportunities a month. So it feels like a lot of work for our agencies to do all at one time.

PN: Have you encountered issues around supply chain — adequate workforces to do the work or inflation taking a bite out of the buying power of the money that might be coming to the states?

Patterson: Again, a lot of the work hasn’t actually started yet. But I and other infrastructure coordinators, we’re talking about that a lot. There is certainly concern about supply. There’s certainly concern about inflation. One of the examples that I heard recently is every state now is trying to build out their broadband networks and there is some sort of box that has to [be installed] to boost that signal. And those boxes used to be, according to our technology director, $200 and now they’re $700. So, yeah, all the things you mentioned are challenges. It doesn’t feel like they’ve hit quite yet, but we know it’s coming.

PN: When you’re in meetings with the other state infrastructure coordinators, what are those conversations like? What are people crowing about? What are they complaining about?

Patterson: We’re all building the plane while we’re flying it. We’re trading a lot of information about what’s coming in because we are focusing on different things at different times. One of the challenges we are all facing is [in some cases the grant applications] will have to come from local governments. And a good proportion of small towns in Delaware don’t have the capacity to apply for these grants. What Gov. Carney did, with the help of the legislature, was fund a program at the University of Delaware specifically to provide grant assistance to local governments. They’re just now spinning up.

This is a great opportunity, but it poses some challenges to try and get it all spent and administered.

PN: Is there any sense that the reporting requirements or the compliance requirements are going to be unwieldy, or a barrier to states and local government entities getting grants or being able to manage them?

Patterson: Yes, especially the small towns are concerned about that because it’s something that they haven’t dealt with a lot. We’re going to work with them on that too and see if we can assess that need and how we can help with that.

But, yeah, with great power comes great responsibility and with great money comes great compliance. And that’s a real issue. It is an issue not just for small towns, but for the state agencies as well that have this influx of money.

One of the realities of having to administer this kind of money and get it out the door is at some point you have to admit you need more people to do it. In the water area that I was talking about, with the five-time increase in drinking water money and doubling of clean water money, we had to staff up and add people to review all the loan applications and be able to administer the loans.

So, this is a great opportunity, but it poses some challenges to try and get it all spent and administered.

PN: There’s a lot of language in the infrastructure law about equity. I’m curious about opportunities Delaware sees to address historical inequities, whether that’s in transportation or any other sector?

Patterson: Yeah, that is all through this law in many different programs. One of our first competitive grants that we got in the transportation arena is a RAISE grant that will remake an area of what’s called Route 9 just south of Wilmington. That is an area of traditionally disadvantaged communities. We got $6 million of planning money to not only slim down that road, a road diet as the transportation people call it, but also create bike paths and walking paths. That is one of our first marquee projects.

PN: Are there any lessons learned so far in your state that you would share with other states?

Patterson: In some ways the job of Delaware as we spend this money is a little easier than other places because everything is so close geographically here.

One of the first conversations that I had was with the coordinator from Alaska. We were talking about the electric vehicle charging requirements. There’s a requirement that you have to place [charging stations[ every 50 miles along major travel routes. We started talking about that and he said, ‘Don’t you think 50 miles is too small — we have stretches of highway in Alaska where there’s nothing for like 100 miles.’ I was like, ‘Dude, I’m from Delaware. We’re going to put like three in and be done.’

So, some of our challenges are unique and some of them don’t really apply to other places. But it’s been good to have at least the camaraderie of figuring it out and being able to compare notes.

PN: Lastly, what is the historical significance of this infrastructure package and what it means for states like yours?

Patterson: I’ve been in state government for over 20 years now, and I’ve never seen this level of funding. You look at the breadth of it, all the different programs — it goes into ports and airports and coastal resilience. There’s money in here for Amtrak, which we don’t administer, but goes through our state. And we have the world’s most famous Amtrak passenger, obviously. That corridor is gonna get money and investment that has been talked about for years.

It’s all a lot of work. And you know, at this point, it’s still a little unclear how it’s all gonna work out. But the level of investment here is remarkable.