For years people here have complained about roads that are narrow, curvy, and poorly maintained.
Interstate 66, first proposed decades ago, was supposed to run through or near Letcher County, but never materialized. A tunnel through Pine Mountain was in the planning stages in the 1990s, but never made it off the blueprints.
Now, with the new $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Improvement and Jobs Act approved by Congress and signed by President Biden, there is a real chance that roads and much more will be back on the agenda. Rural areas have a chance to get broadband Internet — something essential to compete in the today’s connect world. Money could be available to bring clean potable water to the kitchens of people who now have to carry it home in a jug. An airport, which Letcher County had in the 1930s, the 1940s, and the 1960s, but hasn’t had in 30 years, could see an influx of money, opening the county to tourists and businesspeople.
But what if the money is offered and local government can’t accept it? What if it’s not because government doesn’t want it, but because it doesn’t have matching money required for grants, or the plans laid to use it?
There has never been a comprehensive bill like the IIJA, but smaller bills included all kinds of obstacles that prevent small, rural areas from benefitting. They need to be able to spend a percentage of the total project costs to “have ownership” or “show commitment” to the project, they need administrative staff with the knowledge to write grant applications, and they need employees and contractors who can put the money to use quickly.
A phrase often heard in regard to infrastructure money is “shovel ready.” That means the planning must already be done, ready for public employees or contractors to pick up shovels and start working when the money arrives.
But how many needed projects are there in Letcher County that are “shovel ready?” How ready are we to ask for the money, and how ready are we to use it? The need is here, but what about the vision, the expertise, the tax base? If those things aren’t ready, our local officials need to make sure they are soon.
To be clear, $1.2 trillion infrastructure bills don’t come around every day. In fact, this is the first time. Our local officials have to be ready to take advantage of the opportunity while they can.
The question is, are they?
That’s a question that not only do local officials need to be asking themselves, but a question voters need to be asking as well, not only of their officials, but of themselves. Now that the money is available to solve our problems, how committed are we to asking for it and using it properly?