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Infrastructure bill expected to bring help to Letcher Co.

The infrastructure bill passed with bipartisan support by the U.S. Congress last week will provide Kentucky with nearly $6 billion for projects ranging from roads, bridges and airports to Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation funding and home weatherization for the poor.

The act could have direct impact on needed infrastructure in Letcher County, including waterlines, roads and bridges, and the proposed airport to be built near Isom. Kentucky’s share of the bill includes $4.7 billion for highways and bridges over the next five years, Gov. Andy Beshear said.

Mary Westfall-Holbrook, District 12 Chief Engineer for the Kentucky Cabinet for Transportation, said the cabinet is waiting for the Federal Highway Administration to hand down guidelines for when the money will be available and how it will be used.

“Hopefully that will be forthcoming soon,” she said.

She said she has already been taking calls from state legislators and local officials trying to find out what $4.7 billion will fund.

“That word (billion) is such a great word for Kentucky,” Westfall- Holbrook said.

The highway money allocated for Kentucky is more than double the $1.9 billion the state General Assembly budgeted for roads during its last session.

The act also provides $100 million for airports over five years, about four times the state’s annual current budget for airports.

Paul Steely, a consultant working with the Letcher County Airport Board, said the exact uses allowable for the money aren’t known yet, but it should help speed development of an airport here.

“I suspect this will help,” Steely said. “It’s too early to tell to what extent, but definitely increasing the budget coming to Kentucky has got to help.”

The Letcher County airport is next in line on the state’s priority list for funding, after completion of an airport now under construction in Gallatin County. That project is ready to begin paving in spring, Steely said.

Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation will also get a boost, with $11.3 billion allocated over 15 years to that work. It was not clear how much of that new money will come to Kentucky, but the bill also reauthorized the Abandoned Mine Lands fees on coal production at 80 percent of the previous level. Advocates in coal country say the record infusion of money into the cleanup of mines will likely create thousands of jobs for equipment operators and support personnel across Appalachia.

“As coal production has declined in Central Appalachia, states like Kentucky have had less and less money for AML cleanup. We’ve essentially only had enough funding to manage emergencies and the most dangerous sites. In some cases, funding hasn’t been dedicated to a site until a landslide, damaging land and property, has already occurred,” said Rebecca Shelton, Director of Policy and Organizing for Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center in Whitesburg. “This investment will transform AML work in our communities – funding the completion of transformative and innovative projects, rather than scrambling to complete less than the bare minimum of what is needed to keep people safe.”

The bill will send $647 million to Kentucky for water infrastructure. Since 2003, the Letcher County Water and Sewer District has laid nearly 200 miles of waterline in Letcher County, but there are some locations that are still not served by public water.

“Hopefully with the infrastructure bill water will get to even more households,” Judge/Executive Terry Adams said.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill last week on a vote of 228 to 206, with 13 Republicans voting for the bill and six Democrats voting against it. Only one member of Kentucky’s House delegation voted for the bill, U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D, District 3 (Louisville).

In the Senate, the bill passed on a vote of 69-30, with all Democrats and 19 Republicans voting favor of the bill. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell voted for the bill, but Sen. Rand Paul voted against it.

In Jenkins on Tuesday, Paul told a partisan audience at the SmileFaith Dental Center that he was tired of the U.S. spending money to build roads and bridges in other countries, and wanted them built here. Asked why he voted against the infrastructure bill, Paul said, “I think it needs to be paid for,” suggesting he might have supported a bill half as large or “maybe 70 percent.”

Paul quickly pivoted to his own talking point advocating defunding the National Science Foundation.

The infrastructure bill that passed is about 60 percent the size President Joe Biden asked for. He had originally asked Congress to increase the tax rate for corporations from 21 percent to 28 percent, still lower than it was before passage of a $1.7 trillion tax cut in 2017.

Even adjusted for inflation it is still the largest infrastructure bill passed by the federal government since the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. While the administration says the bill will still be paid for by cuts elsewhere in the budget and by growth of the economy triggered by the bill, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that economic growth will be less than the administration’s estimate.

Also included in the bill is $100 million for highspeed Internet service in Kentucky. Just 72.9 percent of Kentuckians currently have access to broadband, while the national rate is 90 percent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 69.5 percent of people in Letcher County are subscribed to broadband and 80 percent have a computer in the home.

There are still large swaths of the county where service is either not available or not affordable.

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