O'Halleran stops in Maricopa to talk infrastructure, education

February 20, 2020
In The News

MARICOPA — U.S. Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, made a pit stop in Maricopa on his road trip across Congressional District 1 on Wednesday to participate in a round-table talk about infrastructure.

With many city, tribal, school and business representatives from around the community in attendance, O’Halleran spoke openly about the failings of infrastructure at the hands of the House and Senate in the last few years.

“At the beginning of this session in 2018, everybody was talking about infrastructure,” O’Halleran began. “There was a road to spending $2 trillion, then a trillion and a half. And then quiet. Because there was no money. And nobody wanted to look at the American public and say, here’s how we’re going to get to the money.”

He was referencing the infrastructure bill that collapsed before being finalized just last year, which included expanding broadband coverage to connect 19 million people to the internet.

“Now they realize — on both sides of the aisle — we made a promise to the American people,” O’Halleran continued. “We cannot continue down the path of doing what we’ve done for decade after decade after decade and not pay attention to one of the foundations of America and America’s success, and that’s our infrastructure. Whatever that may be. I can tell you that anybody from Congress who tells you they don’t know the depth of the problem is just not telling you the truth. It is severe, it is meaningful and it is something we have to resolve.”

O’Halleran believes the crisis of unreliable internet is most exacerbated in rural areas, where he gave the example of how just one person reporting they have broadband access on the U.S. Census meets the bare minimum standards for broadband in that area.

“Right now, there’s a difference between rural and urban areas. 5G comes in — rural areas when and if they get it anytime soon will go up a little bit, metropolitan areas will go up this much,” O’Halleran said, gesturing with his hands far apart. “So, we fall further and further behind. We have to be competitive in this area.”

He mentioned an $80 billion bill currently up for debate that would again promise broadband to the American people over a five-year period. But that left some wondering what would be done about the rest of the infrastructure.

“What specifically can the business community do to help support — yes, we’ll write our senators — but what can we do to support getting, with all due respect, Congress off the dime to move some stuff forward, especially with respect to infrastructure financing?” asked Ioanna Morfessis, senior adviser for the Maricopa Economic Development Alliance board of directors.

O’Halleran’s response focused back on his earlier point, that the American people will have to pay for the bill’s funding somehow, and the proposed solution is a tax increase on gas and plane tickets.

Maricopa Unified School District Superintendent Tracey Lopeman voiced a need for broadband in relation to her district, which has recently invested millions into new technology for its students but still has to rely on outdated and sometimes not functional methods to supply internet to the schools.

“I’m from Phoenix. I spent 28 years in the metropolitan area and coming out here and facing these problems with internet and broadband and the lack of connectivity, I talk to my peers in Phoenix and they go ‘Just call Cox, you need to switch your provider,’” Lopeman said. “And it’s like, ‘Oh, doesn’t work that way.’ We actually have had to invest in microwave technology, which is decades old.”

With internet use only continuing to expand, Lopeman believes the need for children in schools to be educated and proficient in internet use is imperative to their success after high school.

“We’ve invested millions of dollars in curriculum that requires internet access, because jobs require internet capability, (and) being proficient at that. So I really appreciate your looking at this through infrastructure,” Lopeman said.

In the lens of infrastructure, more issues were put to the forefront of O’Halleran’s attention by the listening crowd including fixing roads, flood control, school infrastructure and access to health care.

On the line of discussing changes in staffing within MEDA, Adam Saks, director on MEDA’s board of directors, brought up a point central to the argument for health care.

“Health care has become the currency of business now,” said Saks, who is also the general manager of UltraStar Multi-tainment Center. “People care. They’ll negotiate their health care over salary.”

State Route 347 was tied into a multitude of different issues voiced by members of the round-table talk. For one, City Councilwoman Julia Gusse mentioned how difficult it is for veterans to get to health care when they need it, and told a particularly jarring story.

“I have a friend who lost her child going to the hospital,” Gusse said. “I wouldn’t say that if we had a hospital here in Maricopa it would have saved her, but just the thought that a lot of our residents are (debating) ‘Do I drive myself? Or do I call an ambulance? The ambulance is going to cost me so much money, I would rather drive myself.’ And by the time they get there, they could have saved themselves some medical issues.”

For another, Saks brought up how much his business at UltraStar is directly impacted by that long stretch of road in and out of the city.

“We continue to grow the access to the business of the community, the business of the community is also reliant upon the same road, which is this city drive,” Saks said. “So until we have access to this city, with the 347 truly being addressed, you know, that access will create a number of things that I think will help business and industry and the growth of this area continue.”

Attendees connected the dots between increased business and increased educational needs, and how drawing big business to Maricopa could help fund some of the district’s projects such as a new high school.

Bianca Varela, O’Halleran’s southern district director, suggested reaching out to some of the large entities operating in and around Maricopa with employees who live in the community such as Intel, Boeing and mining companies in order to gain funds for school projects. The bottom line, she said, is to adopt what the mayor is already doing.

“You need to adopt the Christian Price model. Incessant, incessant, incessant,” Varela said, as the group laughed. “Your voice actually works, it works. I mean, obviously, look at your city. It works. But you have to knock, you have to continue to let them know you’re there.”

Saks finished by tying it all together with what he believes is both the biggest issue facing Maricopa, and also the best way forward.

“It’s all built, however, on education,” Saks said. “I think, again, anything that we can be doing to foster an educational system, to bring business and industry, public and private partnerships together to support education for this region — your district — infrastructure and education will grow. We will bring everything else that we’re hoping to see.”