With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Biden nearly five months ago, Cabinet officials have been travelling throughout the country this month to connect the program’s projects with rural communities they will serve. In fact, the law “will send a very strong message to rural Americans that they are not being left out,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack during a press call last week.
Provisions for rural and underserved communities are a focus of the law, emphasized White House Senior Advisor and Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu. These include:
• Affordable, high-speed internet access for every home and business
• Eliminating lead pipes to advance clean water
• Upgrading electrical and transmission material
• Improving the safety of roads and bridges
• Building resilience to natural disasters
Landrieu said the bill outlines $14.6 billion for rural-specific projects. This does not include money available through new projects in the Department of Transportation or $2 billion in new rural funding announced this month, he continued. In fact, earlier this week, USDA’s Forest Service announced $238 million for the Secure Rural Schools program to support municipal services, roads, and schools in communities near national forests.
Perhaps the most discussed item of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is its goals for rural broadband. Internet access is critical for everything in rural areas from precision agriculture to telemedicine, Vilsack stated. He further explained that the efforts of this law are not only to create access for communities with no internet but to improve connection for areas that currently have no high-speed options.
Landrieu described that an interagency committee is working on the complicated process of developing Congress-requested maps needed for this work. It is expected that substantial progress will be made before the end of the year.
There will also be significant investments in projects to help rural communities become more resilient to natural disasters, including wildfires and droughts, added Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Her department and others will tackle projects such as legacy pollution, drought crisis, and restoring core habitats. Another area of focus will be reclaiming abandoned mine lands.
To help communities prepare for these programs and compete for federal dollars, a playbook that outlines the rural-focused opportunities has been developed and is available at www.build.gov/rural. Landrieu and Vilsack emphasized that this tool will help rural America take full advantage of funds available to help improve their communities. A variety of different areas will be touched by these projects.
“This is the most significant investment in rural people and places since the Depression,” Vilsack said.