The Columbia ferry, which was grounded in 2019 to save costs, is scheduled to return to Juneau next weekend as it resumes service between Alaska and Bellingham, Washington, due to a more-extensive-than-expected overhaul of the Matanuska. The ferry system is by far the biggest recipient to date of funds from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill in terms of Southeast Alaska impacts. (Carey Case / Alaska Marine Highway)

The Columbia ferry, which was grounded in 2019 to save costs, is scheduled to return to Juneau next weekend as it resumes service between Alaska and Bellingham, Washington, due to a more-extensive-than-expected overhaul of the Matanuska. The ferry system is by far the biggest recipient to date of funds from the 2021 federal infrastructure bill in terms of Southeast Alaska impacts. (Carey Case / Alaska Marine Highway)

Trillion dollar maybes: Coordinated approach aims to untangle complicated federal funding web

State, tribal and local governments using “hub” plans to simplify and maximize Alaska’s share.

It’s not too hard, by looking at a headline or listening to a politician’s soundbite, to know the ferry system is getting a bunch of federal infrastructure funds. Or even, perhaps, that a lot of Southeast Alaska communities are getting upgrades to their airports and communications capabilities.

But sorting out who’s gotten what during the past year or two and is getting what during the next few years, and what funds are still up for grabs is an enormous and jumbled web. Ensnared in it are state and local governments, tribal entities, nonprofit organizations and other eligible applicants who all — in theory – need to coordinate efforts to maximize the funds Alaska gets and ensures they’re spent wisely.

Efforts to untangle that web and explain how some of those groups are trying to work through a coordinated “hub” were made this week at the Alaska State Capitol, where legislators early in the session are trying to figure out what they can seek funds for and how quickly they’ll have to do so.

“Agencies are still getting out notices of funding opportunities,” Mike Anderson, acting infrastructure coordinator for Gov. Mike Dunleavy, told the state House Finance Committee on Wednesday in response to a question about what federal infrastructure funds are still available. “It’s almost like a rolling admissions.”

During the meeting officials representing the state, Alaska Municipal League and Alaska Federation of Natives each explained how they’re trying to be “hubs” for applicants in terms of detailing what’s available, how to apply for it and where funding is going so far. All three are among 10 state entities pooling resources at the website Alaska Federal Funding (akfederalfunding.org), which provides comprehensive information about about infrastructure bill and $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act (aka the COVID-19 stimulus bill).

The infrastructure bill passed in 2021 allocates $1.2 trillion over five years. Of that, $423 billion is for “base spending,” $284 billion for “new” transporation projects and $266 billion for other infrastructure.

The state is receiving $5.5 billion during the first two years, with $6.7 billion committed as of now for the five-year period, according to Anderson. Of that, $3.5 billion during the first two years and $4.7 billion overall are going to state government departments. The remainder is going to municipal governments, tribal entities, non-profit organizations and other eligible recipients. Many programs require a 20% non-federal match in funding.

Concern about making sure help is provided to smaller, less-experienced entities applying for funds still available was expressed by Rep. Sara Hannan, a Juneau Democrat on the finance committee.

“I’m not fearful that DOT struggles to figure out how to apply for DOT programs that they’ve done for years and years and years,” she said. “But I am concerned that communities that have not been successful in getting water and sewer have all the support they meed to get that out the door (and) apply for funding successfully.”

Alaska has some inherent advantages in applying for infrastructure funds, including a high number of Alaska Native entities that are eligible, the state’s lack of modern infrastructure due to areas that are remote and difficult to access, and climate change impacts, Anderson said. Project areas he cited as “competitive opportunities” include electric grid modernization, clean hydrogen technologies, carbon capture and sequestration, and rare earth and critical minerals.

Disadvantages are the current levels of statewide planning and coordination, technical capacity and workforce availability and access to matching funds, he said.

Another complicating factor is there’s obviously far more than just infrastructure funds available from the federal government — along with the requirement the recipient of all such funds provide some matching money of their own. Juneau, for instance, got a variety of wish-list items (such as $7 million for studies related to a second Juneau-Douglas crossing) in the recently passed $1.7 trillion omnibus budget bill, and city officials noted U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, on Monday opened her earmarks portal where requests for the next fiscal year can be submitted.

There’s actually six “major economic relief bills” providing more than $35 billion in “tribal set-asides” being tracked by AFN, Nicole Borromeo, the organization’s executive vice president, noted in an email Thursday. Of that she cited roughly $140 million that will help Alaska Native tribes and entities, including $35.1 million broadband connectivity, $4.4 million for digital equity, $9.7 million for various capital projects and $92 million for small businesses loans.

The small business funds are part of a $700 million national program and Borromeo stated AFN’s coordination efforts vastly expanded the state’s share.

“When this program began, fewer than a dozen Alaska tribes had plans to apply, but through our consortium, AFN was able to enroll 129 tribes in the program,” she wrote, noting total funding for state tribal entities could eventually exceed $125 million.

AFN is using a “‘Hub and Spoke” model, where federal navigators track legislation and grant programs, and regional navigators share funding opportunities with local eligible applicants, Borromeo told the state House Finance Committee. A total of 408 consortium members have shared tribal funds awarded so far.

While “the scale and scope of the infrastructure package is immense and overwhelming,” the efforts to maximize applications by state entities is also extensive, according to Nils Andreassen, executive director of Alaska Municipal League. Among those efforts are trying to ensure applicants in the same areas aren’t in competition that’s counterproductive.

“I do see more focus on collaborative grant responses to reduce that, including more joint applications from municipalities and tribes,” he wrote in an email Thursday.

Also, he told the finance committee on Wednesday, while the application/distribution period is five years, there’s a 10-year window for completing/implementing projects.

Juneau/Southeast Alaska infrastructure funds awarded to date

While this list includes all the major allocations and many smaller community-specific ones, it is not comprehensive. Most notable is funding designated as “statewide,” which is noted in ferry spending below since it largely applies to Southeast, but omitted in other categories (i.e. highways) since the dominant portion of funds will be directed elsewhere in the state.

$285 million for six Alaska Marine Highway projects and an additional $209 million for “rural ferry service.” The state is required to provide matching funds for about $100 million of the AMHS projects.

— $33 million for an Alaska Telephone Company fiber-to-premises network for Haines, Hoonah, Angoon and Skagway.

— $29.34 million for a fiber network on Prince of Wales Island.

— $14.4 million for U.S. Forest Service Cabins, with about half of that designated for the Tongass National Forest.

— $4.3 million for an electronic bus network in Ketchikan (plus another $477,000 for Metlakatla).

— $4 million for maintenance support improvements at the U.S. Coast Guard base in Ketchikan.

— $3.5 million for upgrades at Juneau International Airport. Various amounts are also provided to all other region airports including $1.6 million for Ketchikan; $1.26 million for Sitka; $1.1 million for Wrangell; about $1 million each for Haines, Gustavus, Klawock and Yakutat; $159,000 for Hoonah and Skagway; and $110,000 for Angoon, Coffman Cove, Tenakee Springs, Thorn Bay, Pelican, Craig, Hydaberg, Elfin Cove and Metlakatla.

— $2.26 million for Juneau municipal government vehicle storage and modernization of the main facility.

— $2 million for climate resilience/adaption programs protecting traditional resources for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. Other Southeast Alaska tribal organizations getting similar funding include nearly $300,000 for the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, about $260,000 for the Ketchikan Indian Community and $248,000 for the Klawock Cooperative Association.

— $734,000 for private ferries servicing Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island.

Four Juneau projects favored for future federal funds

While the Juneau Assembly has compiled a priority list of 22 projects it wants to seek state and federal funding for, an analysis presented to members Jan. 26 by Public Works Director Katie Koester and city lobbyist Katie Kachel identify the following four as good candidates for “prospective Congressional Directed Spending” (aka earmarks)

— $14.5 million for replacing CBJ’s radio system “due to the public safety, homeland security, and emergency response benefits.” The project “will likely have to be phased due to the available funding.”

— $5.75 million for oil/grit removal at the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant, via clean water project funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that will help the city meet compliance requirements with the Alaska Department of Conservation.

— $10 million for a Lemon Creek Multimodal Path, which is also relying on local sales tax and requested state funds.

— $75 million for a Capital Civic Center. A $25 million request last year was unsuccessful, but “since then, progress has been made on developing the project to reduce the total project cost and further develop the concept level design.”

• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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