Federal funding approved for rural broadband deployment and transportation infrastructure

Published 8:55 pm Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Last month, a bill was signed into law that would increase funding for rural broadband deployment and transportation infrastructure.

The legislation signed into law reportedly includes $600 million for rural broadband deployment. The signed legislation reportedly includes Klobuchar’s bills to connect communities across Minnesota and the United States with affordable internet access, including provisions based on  Rural Spectrum Accessibility Act legislation she introduced and her bill to encourage states to coordinate highway construction projects with broadband providers so broadband infrastructure can be installed at once.

“Our 21st century economy demands 21st century infrastructure, and that requires investments in roads, bridges, airports and rural broadband,” Klobuchar said. “This crucial funding will not only connect communities across our state physically but also digitally — bringing high speed internet to even more Minnesotans.

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“The inclusion of my legislation to streamline development will reduce the costs of building new infrastructure and help expand wireless coverage in our rural areas, a necessity for our families and businesses.”

The bill triples funding for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program. Those grants support state and local projects to increase traffic flow and improve safety. Across the state, such grants have reportedly supported projects in Scott, Kandiyohi and Ramsey counties.

Freeborn County Highway Engineer Sue Miller said though the legislation would likely help the area in a limited way, a long-term transportation funding source is needed.

She said she would rather see federal legislators go after long-term, sustainable transportation funding sources.

“I absolutely support anything that our representatives are trying to do to improve the infrastructure in rural Minnesota, but TIGER grants are very difficult for agencies like ours to apply for and be competitive, so there is a great deal of work and effort that goes into applying for those federal TIGER grants,” she said.

Miller said even tripling funding for the program would still not bring enough revenue and would leave Freeborn County to compete with much larger areas.

Miller said it needs to be determined how the Highway User Trust fund can become solvent in the next five years, adding the federal government still must decide whether it wants to transfer money to the fund or introduce another option.

The bill also includes provisions Klobuchar introduced to reduce regulations and streamline the broadband deployment process, encourage collaboration between large and small carriers to bridge service gaps in rural areas and boost broadband infrastructure investments.

The legislation directs the Federal Communications Commission to conduct rulemaking on opportunities for large carriers to lease unused spectrum to rural and smaller carriers and encourage collaboration between companies to bridge service gaps in rural areas, and streamline broadband deployment on federal land to increase broadband infrastructure investments in rural communities near federal land.

Miller said it makes sense to install broadband during road construction projects so such roads do not have to be dug up twice.

“It’s a great concept,” she said. “It’s a great idea. If the world was a little more sustainable where we could plan for that money, I think it could work really, really well.”

The legislation includes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Essential Air Service program, which helps rural communities maintain commercial air service.

“In Minnesota, flights to and from Bemidji, Brainerd, Chisholm/Hibbing, International Falls and Thief River Falls are eligible for support through this program,” the release stated. “Maintaining regular commercial flights to and from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is vital to the economic competitiveness of the regions served by these airports.

“Essential Air Service flights also strengthen Minneapolis-St. Paul as a large hub airport resulting in more choices for passengers departing from the Twin Cities.”

Last May, Klobuchar — a member of the Senate Commerce Committee and co-chairwoman of the Senate Broadband Caucus — and Sens. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, and Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, introduced a bill to expand broadband deployment using accurate coverage maps.

Last April, Klobuchar and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Nebraska, led a bipartisan group of 56 senators urging the Federal Communications Commission to continue advancing broadband deployment in rural communities.

In 2017, Klobuchar and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-West Virginia, introduced legislation to measure the economic impact broadband has on the U.S. economy. Klobuchar, Capito and Sens. Angus King, Heidi Heitkamp and John Boozman led 48 senators in urging the Trump administration to include broadband funding in any infrastructure initiative.

Miller said though sufficiently funding transportation is agreed by both major parties, there remains the need to have a sufficient funding source.

“The funny thing about transportation is all the Republicans, all the Democrats, whoever is the president, they all agree that we need a good, sound transportation network,” she said. “They all have great plans of what they want that transportation plan to look like — where we always fall apart is how are we going to fund it. How are we going to pay for it?”

About Sam Wilmes

Sam Wilmes covers crime, courts and government for the Albert Lea Tribune.

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