O’Halleran talks infrastructure, COVID-19, relief package

February 18, 2021
In The News

PAGE – Wednesday’s Page City Council meeting began with a discussion about infrastructure.

Counselor Brian Carey said, “We haven’t seen it yet on the federal level, but during the campaign, there was (a) promise of an infrastructure bill.”

Carey reminded the council, “The last time we went through this in 2009, shovel-ready projects were the ones that got funded.”

City Manager Darren Coldwell brought the council up to speed: “We have been working in that mode already. The mayor and I met with Senator Mark Kelly.”

Coldwell said Kelly requested shovel-ready projects and, “We’ve already sent him the outline of the (89A) project in hopes [of] potential funding for that. So, we’ll see where that goes.”

The Chronicle talked with U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran Friday. Infrastructure was the main topic, and how the federal government can help the Page area.

The discussion also included COVID-19, vaccine distribution, national shortages, and the relief package.

“Right now, obviously, we’re focused on saving people’s lives,” O’Halleran said. “As we get into the next round, which is saving families, we need to find ways of getting jobs into this economy, good-paying jobs. I want to see the next round be infrastructure.”

O’Halleran said the infrastructure bill the U.S. House passed and sent to the Senate last year was never heard. He said they would redo the bill and probably put more money in it if they can. The bill will also include broadband development, which could make the Page area more appealing to tech industries.

“You can’t compete in this economy without having, not just broadband, but high-quality, high-speed, high-capacity broadband that’ll allow us to get those types of jobs needed in those areas,” he said.

The 2020 bill was for about $85 billion, most of which was targeting rural and travel lands. O’Halleran said, “This year, we’re looking at a hundred billion dollars, same package type, except some of it might go to help subsidize lower-income folk in the more urban settings.”

“I will look at that as a part of a longer-term plan. We can’t come in and say, ‘Here’s $80, $90, $100 billion.’ That will probably take almost five years to spend between planning and permitting and everything else,” O’Halleran explained. “So, you can’t get a lot on the ground in that period of time in the first couple of years. But then, as you look out into the future, we can’t spend that money and then say we’re done. We have to look at this as a program that reaches out the next decade or so because that’s how much work needs to be done for infrastructure in America.”

O’Halleran said the bill would build roads, create clean energy jobs and help other sectors of America’s infrastructure. All need to be looked upon as part of the fabric of the society going into the future.

Part of the urgency to move fast is construction inflation. O’Halleran said, “It almost goes to 70% over a decade. Everything that we wait for is going to be 70% higher in cost 10 years later. We can’t allow this to happen. I don’t know how we ever got to this position, but it has to stop because these are capital investments in the first place.”

While leadership tends to act in short-term solutions, O’Halleran said, “We are looking into the 20, 30 years, and here’s where we want to put America in that time frame. I don’t know what the leadership is going to say about it because they have a tendency to go every three years or every year. That’s not good for America. If you’re only going to do it piecemeal, you’ll always be behind, especially in rural America.”

A lot of money is wasted in long-term plans. Local, county, state, and federal leadership changes, studies, and plans become outdated or obsolete.

The Chronicle asked O’Halleran what could be done to ensure long-range plans are completed. He responded, “We have to have a program that has a target, and that way, the administration coming in will have to explain to the American people why that target cannot be met.”

O’Halleran suggested Gov. Doug Ducey’s $10 million investment into broadband for schools (which was federal money) was insufficient.

“The $10 million is not going to get us where we need to be. And all these studies that you talked about, most of the time, would be done if the funding were available,” O’Halleran continued. “When they (are 3-5 years old ), of course, you have to look at it again, and then it’s going to be more costly, and the study is going to cost you more money, and the planning process is going to cost you more money. It is just not the way to address capital development in America.”

O’Halleran emphasized the need to make initial investments in larger projects like roads, bridges, and airports. He said, if built and maintained correctly, they should last for 20-30 years. He said, “There’s a need to have that initial capital development into our economy. And that’s where the shortfall has been on a consistent basis.”

Last year, state Rep. Arlando Teller tried to get a bill through on the state level for a roundabout on U.S. Route 89A in Page. The bill didn’t go to vote, supposedly over politics. President Joe Biden recently tapped Teller as deputy assistant secretary for tribal affairs in the U.S. Department of Transportation.  

At Wednesday’s council meeting, Mayor Bill Diak said, “We have three bills that are before the legislators that are very, very important to Page. The first one of those bills is House Bill 2232, which is for our roundabout access at the north access of 89 and Lake Powell Boulevard.”

Because Teller went to Washington, there’s no one to revive and champion the bill.

Diak said, “We are not leaving our eggs all in one basket. Darren and I also reached out to ADOT Board of Supervisors, and we sent hard copies of our plan to them today (Feb. 10). We have a champion in there, one of our board of supervisors that we’ve been working with.”

Coldwell said there are at least 29 infrastructure bills in the works.

Speaking of Teller’s state bill for the roundabout Coldwell said, “I did ask [State] Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai (D-Cameron) … if she would mirror this bill in the senate and see if we can’t take it from a new route.”

Coldwell said, “Without a champion behind this, it probably would just die. So, I’ll see if she won’t just flip it over to the Senate and see if we can’t go from there.”

He added, “My fear is with it going to a Republican appropriations committee, it’s probably just going to sit at the front door, especially without Rep. Teller really there to shake the window sill.”

Route 89A is a federal highway but the funds are distributed through the state. O’Halleran told the Chronicle he would talk to Teller about this when Teller goes to Washington in a few weeks. He said he’d “ask him what happened and see what we can do moving forward.”

About state redistribution of federal funds and their failure to take care of northern Arizona highways, O’Halleran said, “Well, we’ve learned through COVID that if you’re having a state be the money manager for all funds that it’s not working efficiently in the COVID situation or in many other situations. We have a different way of getting these grants and funding into the system so that there is more power and transparency – more power at the local level than waiting on a potential five-year plan that you get rolled back to a 10-year plan by ADOT.”

O’Halleran expressed his frustration with the way COVID-19 and getting the vaccinations out is handled. He said experts talked at a recent Energy and Commerce meeting he attended.

One logistical expert, a former governor of Minnesota, was asked, “What’s going on? What can we do?” The former governor said, “We have to learn. We have to change as we learn, and it takes some time.”  

O’Halleran said, “I’m thinking to myself, ‘No, no.’ People are dying, three or four thousand a day. We have to learn faster. He (the former governor) said, ‘It’s only been a year.’ No, it hasn’t been a year. It’s been three years because we should be working around the clock to get this stuff done. So, don’t call it a year. It’s three years, every time of year goes by. We have to find ways of scheduling it to get it prioritized.”

O’Halleran said the next person to speak at the meeting was the former head of the U.S. stockpile. He was asked what was needed. He replied, “Everything.”

O’Halleran said, “We don’t have enough of anything right now.”

The last person to speak was a researcher and physician. She was asked the same question, “What can we do?”

She said, “You have to have a full-court press.”

O’Halleran said, “That’s what’s going on now, but that should have started day one. Or at least when we knew hundreds of people a day were dying. You can’t at the end of the year say we’re short of everything.”

“I asked Dr. (Anthony) Fauci two or three times and his answer was the same, and so were some of the other administration peoples’,” O’Halleran said. “Are we going to be prepared for the fall and winter? Every time, whether it was Dr. Fauci or the others, the answer was, ‘We hope so.’ At some point along the line, you have to use the defense act, production act more efficiently. You have to put more personnel on it, and you have to find a way to make this work. If this was a kinetic war, and you’re having three or four thousand soldiers dying every day, people would be up in arms.

“And it was being looked at as, ‘Well, we just can’t get there.’ We’ve done it in every major thing that this country has been involved in. We’ve always found a way to win.”

He added, “In this epidemic, there’s always been the money necessary to do what needs to be done. Congress was never going to refuse additional money if they needed it, and here we are with a shortage across the entire perspective.”

“We have to catch up now, and I think we’re going to if we can ever get this latest package up. If we’re having people die at this rate, we should be working 24 hours a day to find a resolution.”