CASPER — Congress recently passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, and experts say the measure could help remedy longstanding issues in Wyoming.
Driving on damaged roads costs each Wyoming driver an average of $295 per year, nearly 7% of the state’s bridges are rated “structurally deficient,” and 99 dams are considered to be “high-hazard potential,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). Deteriorating infrastructure impedes Wyoming’s ability to compete in an increasingly global marketplace, the group concludes.
The legislation has drawn criticism from the state’s congressional delegation, who worry about its price tag and spending on projects that won’t benefit rural residents. But experts say the infusion of infrastructure dollars could help Wyoming over the long term.
“Wyoming is at a nexus point, so I am optimistic about these investments that could go a long way toward better positioning the state to take advantage of new opportunities that build on its history, know how, and culture,” said Christelle Khalaf, associate director for the Center of Business and Economic Development at the University of Wyoming.
What’s in the bill? The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funnels money into a number of sectors in Wyoming. The state can expect to receive the following:
While the bill defines broad categories of spending, the specifics have yet to be worked out, officials at both the Wyoming Department of Transportation and the Wyoming Business Council told the Star-Tribune.
The bill received some bipartisan support, but Wyoming’s congressional delegation — Rep. Liz Cheney and Sens. John Barrasso and Cynthia Lummis — voted against it.
Thirteen House Republicans and 19 Senate Republicans voted in favor of the package.
How will this affect you? The infrastructure bill’s investment in roads will make it easier to move goods within Wyoming and across borders, while the investment in broadband will improve internet access, experts say.
The improvements could make it easier for businesses to branch out into the digital market, with potentially lower shipping costs, Khalaf said. That trend could attract more business to Wyoming, a key priority for the state as it attempts to diversify its economy to become less reliant on the energy industry.
“Wyomingites can expect higher connectivity, physically and digitally,” she said.
The bill will be a boost for the construction industry, and it comes at a good time. The sector was down 11 percent in September compared to February 2020, the month before the pandemic.
“In the short term, Wyoming will benefit from a much-needed boost to the construction industry,” Khalaf said.
Union workers are expected to benefit. Many of the jobs added through the bill will “largely be union jobs,” Tammy Johnson, executive secretary of the Wyoming AFL-CIO, said in an email to union workers.
The bill could also help the state’s highway system. The Wyoming Department of Transportation is expected to be a major beneficiary of the federal dollars.
Its director, Luke Reiner, said he is “encouraged” by the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and is “working to plan how best to use these potential funds for the people of Wyoming.”
By boosting individual sectors, the state’s overall economy will benefit, experts predict.
“I see the ripple effect of it all coming together and helping economic development and good jobs for Wyomingites,” said Josh Dorrell, CEO of the Wyoming Business Council. “You improve transportation infrastructure, you’re more appealing for manufacturers. This is a big igniter for economic development.”
Broadband Reliable broadband is critical in a lightly populated state with residents spread out over great distances. That’s even more the case with the onset of the pandemic as remote work, schooling and medical appointments have become more ubiquitous.
The bill includes a “minimum allocation” of $100 million to expand broadband coverage in Wyoming. That includes providing access to the roughly 48,000 Wyoming residents without broadband access, the White House said.
Meanwhile, about 25 percent of people in Wyoming will be eligible for the Affordability Connectivity Benefit, which is designed to help low-income families afford internet access. While the money is helpful, it may not bridge all gaps.
“What I’m worried about is that we’re not going to be able to upgrade 25 [megabits per second] download, three [megabits per second] upload to something higher and better,” said Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, who chairs the Wyoming Broadband Task Force. “But if we want to keep Wyoming relevant in today’s economy, we have to have something higher than 25-three.”
The bill’s infusion of infrastructure funding for Wyoming did not protect it from criticism from the state’s all-Republican congressional delegation.
“There are many infrastructure priorities, like improving our roads and bridges, expanding rural broadband, and reforming the [National Environmental Policy Act] process, that would have by themselves received much broader bipartisan support,” Cheney said. “Unfortunately, the Democrats’ bill instead includes far-left provisions that will ultimately hurt families across our state.”
The bill provides $66 billion in passenger rail to revitalize AMTRAK in the Northeast and $91 billion for public transit systems, neither of which will benefit Wyoming, a Cheney aide noted.
“I’m disappointed that Democrats have opted to use their slim majority to advance largely-partisan legislation rather than working across the aisle on solutions that both parties can broadly support,” Cheney said. “Going forward, I will continue to prioritize the needs and interests of the people of Wyoming and work to advance those causes in the House.”
Barrasso expressed a similar sentiment.
“This bill started from a bipartisan foundation that I passed through the Environment and Public Works Committee last Congress. It will invest in roads and bridges in Wyoming,” the senator said. “There is much-needed funding for Bureau of Reclamation water reservoirs, although not at the level we need to fund aging facilities in the current drought conditions facing the West.”
But Republicans were quick to note the legislation’s massive cost.
“Being a very rural state, Wyoming has specific needs that most other states do not. There are programs in this bill that will be beneficial for Wyoming,” Lummis said. “However, I didn’t vote for it because I believe the price tag was too high and too much of the spending decisions would be made by bureaucrats in Washington instead of those on the ground in the states.”
Proponents of the bill argue it will pay for itself through a number of measures without raising taxes.
However, the Congressional Budget Office found that the legislation would add about $256 billion to the projected federal deficit over the next decade.
“I’ve insisted that an infrastructure bill be fully paid for. This bill misses that mark,” Barrasso said. “The level of new spending Democrats insisted on will add more than $250 billion to the debt burden on our children and grandchildren. Washington must learn to live within its means, like every family in Wyoming does.”
Wyoming Democrats, meanwhile, lauded the bill.
“President Biden’s dedication to the American people and his ability to reach across the aisle got the job done and, as a result, Wyoming will see real investments in and improvements made to our infrastructure,” said Wyoming Democratic Party Chair Joe Barbuto. “For a lot of folks in our state, this historic piece of legislation is a game changer that will help to support and create jobs, innovation, and economic diversity. The build back better agenda isn’t about whether a state is red or blue—it’s about building opportunity and prosperity for all Americans.”
Political critics of the bill also noted its expansion of electric vehicles will hamper the energy sector in oil and gas states. A Cheney aide pointed to the $15 billion in green subsidies in the bill, specifically for electric buses and electric vehicle charging stations.
“[These] will hurt Wyoming’s energy industry that supports families across the state,” the aide said.
Others don’t see the bill’s support of green technology hampering other sources of energy.
“(This bill) does include some provisions to promote electrification and other low-carbon technologies. However, it doesn’t specifically exclude or sanction traditional fuel sources,” Khalaf said. “For example, the bill includes a grant program for EV (electrical vehicle) charging and fueling infrastructure that includes natural gas, hydrogen, and propane fueling infrastructure. In addition, the clean school bus program includes not only EVs but also LNG (liquefied natural gas), compressed natural gas, hydrogen, propane, and biofuels.”
Fuel taxes — which fund about 11 percent of Wyoming’s highway program — have provided diminishing returns with the rise of more fuel-efficient vehicles. The federal government, meanwhile, remains the highway system’s main benefactor.
“The infrastructure bill may not provide a lot of immediate, instant benefit to the traditional energy sector. But it does contain large levels of funding support that will assist with the sustainable transformation of the industry and support Wyoming’s pursuit of netzero emission through the ‘all-of-the-above’ energy strategy,” said Glenn Murrell, executive director of the Wyoming Energy Authority.
As Wyoming works to diversify its economy, it must contend with training workers to accommodate different industries. That process is known as upskilling. As it wound its way through Congress, the legislation underwent major cuts, one of which would have benefited the upskilling of Wyoming workers.
“The bill initially included $100 billion for workforce development, which would have partially helped displaced workers,” said Khalaf, specifically noting the downturn in the coal industry. “This would have provided much needed upskilling investments in the state.”
Business advocates agree.
“It’s pretty clear that our natural resources and our energy sectors have been at risk, and so being able to provide other opportunities for those workers is really important,” Durrell said.
President Joe Biden’s signing of the bill into law won’t mean Wyoming’s infrastructure problems are solved. In fact, many details must still be worked out. State lawmakers will convene in mid-February for the budget session and are likely to tackle how to appropriate the money.