How an infrastructure bill can help rural communities in the West
Communities across the rural West have a long list of infrastructure needs. Will the Biden administration’s or a GOP counterproposal, make the difference?
Kane Creek Road, a curving asphalt road nestled between the Colorado River and red rock cliffs, might not see much use were it not situated in Moab, Utah — a small town so inundated with visitors these days that City Manager Joel Linares says he’s never bored.
“We’re just getting overrun. We just cannot keep up,” Linares said.
The road, which leads to a popular off-roading route, is falling apart, according to Linares. The byway has turned into a kind of quilt with lines of asphalt zigzagging every way. “I don’t know that there’s a 6 foot by 6 foot square of asphalt left in the whole road. I mean, it’s just a big piece of patchwork.” he said.
Quick fixes just aren’t working anymore.
Deteriorating Kane Creek and other roads in this area of southeastern Utah are an example of how a small town of roughly 5,000 full-time residents must contend with big city infrastructure problems brought on by an average of 3 million visitors a year.
“All of our projects and everything is so geared towards meeting the market demand that’s being driven by overnight accommodations,” Linares said. “We never have time or money to go in and take care of our failing infrastructure that’s decades and decades and decades old.”
The Biden administration’s massive $2 trillion infrastructure plan may be the opportunity to address those needs in communities like Moab, which have not only become recreational destinations but overwhelmed with new residents who discovered during the pandemic that they can work, and now play, from anywhere.
Infrastructure across rural and urban America is in a state of disrepair. The latest infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country a C-. In the rural West, where some communities are simultaneously strapped for cash and seeing meteoric growth, meeting infrastructure needs will determine how well they cope with shifting economies, population influx and water scarcity.
“The growth puts a lot of pressure on existing infrastructure,” said Danya Rumore, founder of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region Initiative and a professor of law and city planning at the University of Utah. A large part of her work includes getting small communities to start thinking about how they want to grow, ideally before it happens. For infrastructure to make a real difference in the West, she believes it must look to the future.
But Republicans in Congress are not supportive of Biden’s infrastructure plan — maintaining that it is too broad and too expensive. Democrats hope to get the bill passed by early July, potentially through the budget reconciliation process, which would fast-track it through the closely divided Senate. On Thursday, Senate Republicans unveiled their own infrastructure plan on Thursday with a lower price tag of $568 billion that would also address repairs on roads and bridges, broadband and water systems.
GOP Rep. John Curtis’ office, whose district includes Moab, declined to comment on whether he supports the Biden plan, which takes an expansive view of infrastructure that some city planning experts say is needed to manage growth in rural areas.
Moab is suffering from an increasingly common problem out West — too much of a good thing. Too many tourists. Too much growth. Too much money driving up real estate prices. The water lines are bursting, the sewer system needs upgrading, and housing is so scarce that even if you had $700,000 at your disposal, there’s not a home to be had.
There are lots of towns experiencing those same problems.
“Any time any community has rapid growth, it’s really hard to respond to that growth,” said Rumore. “That’s in terms of infrastructure, but it’s also in terms of questions like ‘how do you want to grow?’”
Rumore’s research has focused on identifying the problems facing small communities like Moab. One of the biggest challenges, she says, is planning ahead.
“A lot of these places probably needed to have that conversation a long time ago, we’ve heard from communities like Moab that they wish they’d had that conversation maybe 20 years ago,” Rumore said.
Because of COVID-19, migration to the rural West has been expedited by about 15 years, Rumore said. That has created a significant challenge for communities on many levels, one being infrastructure. “Let’s say your wastewater system is already kind of taxed, and all of a sudden, you’re the next cool town and people are moving in droves from the cities to your town, how do you deal with that?” Rumore said.
She wants to see investments in preparation for what a community could become in the future, and believes a more expansive definition of infrastructure is key — what some call “soft” infrastructure. However, the definition of “infrastructure,” has become a hotly contested issue in Washington.
In an article about the debate, the New York Times wrote that proponents of Biden’s plan (and his more expansive definition of infrastructure), “argue that in the 21st century, anything that helps people work and lead productive or fulfilling lives counts as infrastructure. That includes investments in people, like the creation of high-paying union jobs or raising wages for a home health work force that is dominated by women of color.”
However, critics of the plan say that such an expansive definition means shifting focus from hard infrastructure (i.e. roads, bridges, and dams), that are in desperate need of repair. Benji Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition, argued in a Deseret News op-ed that, “We need to update our infrastructure, but we need to do so in a focused way.” Backer wrote. “If everything is infrastructure, nothing is infrastructure.”
One type of “soft” infrastructure included in Biden’s plan is housing. His proposal earmarks funds for the construction of more low-income housing and updates to existing public housing.
“Housing is critical infrastructure,” Philip Stoker, a professor of landscape architecture and planning at the University of Arizona, said. Stoker’s research has looked at how housing affordability impacts commuting. If workforce housing stock isn’t available, he explained, that simply causes people to commute further and further distances, which puts a strain on the roads or public transportation.
And that’s not just academic theory to Linares, the city manager. When he tries to hire someone to work for the city of Moab, it’s often difficult to get them to stay.
He’ll make them a job offer, they’ll accept, move to the city and live in a trailer or RV while searching for more permanent housing. But after two months go by, they give up and return to wherever they originally moved from. “They say ‘I can’t afford to live here. I can’t find housing.’ That happens a lot,” Linares said.
Housing is the No. 1 need in Moab. Without it workers can’t afford to live there and the city can’t continue to diversify the economy, according to Linares.
Addressing housing infrastructure, will also help address more traditional forms of infrastructure, Stoker said. Building up the affordable housing stock will be key to sustainable growth in small rural communities.
Biden’s plan also calls for investments in water infrastructure, including upgrades to drinking and wastewater systems and replacing lead pipes. The plan put forth by Republicans would also dedicate $35 billion for drinking water and wastewater, and $14 billion for water storage.
Planning for future water needs, and future availability amid warming temperatures and drought, is another key need for rural communities, experts said. Seth Arens is a researcher for Wester Water Assessment, a program funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal of the program is to help regions understand, prepare for and adapt to changes in climate.
When it comes to infrastructure, Arens said in some cases additional water storage might be needed, although building dams is far more difficult today than it was in the 20th century.
But communities should also consider water conservation to address future drought and forest management to address wildfires that can impact watersheds.
“In Utah, in the West, we’ve been seeing more fires, and we’re going to keep seeing more fires,” Arens said. “I think it could be very easy to make the case to spend infrastructure money on more actively managing forests.”
Biden’s plan calls for $50 billion in “infrastructure resilience,” which includes “protection from extreme wildfires.”
The Biden administration’s fact sheet for the proposed infrastructure plan also mentions investments “in rural communities and communities impacted by the market-based transition to clean energy.”
The plan calls for $5 billion to establish a rural partnership program “to help rural regions, including Tribal Nations, build on their unique assets and realize their vision for inclusive community and economic development.”
In the rural West, trail building could be part of that, according to Ashley Korenblat, founder of Public Land Solutions and owner of Western Spirit Cycling (an outfitter based out of Moab). Her organization advocates for trail building in small communities looking to build up their tourism economy.
“There is demand right now for trails everywhere,” Korenblat said. “It’s the low hanging fruit in the infrastructure world. It’s the cheapest thing that you can do that will make the biggest difference.”
Her organization has worked to put trails in places like Naturita, Colorado, and drafted trail possibilities for places like Flaming Gorge in eastern Utah.
What actually gets included in the final infrastructure plan remains unknown, but in the rural West, investments in housing, water, and recreation infrastructure could be key to sustainable growth.
In Moab, infrastructure woes have led to drastic measures like a moratorium on new commercial lodging construction.
“An injection of a whole lot of money is not going to be a bad thing. There’s not the financial resources to do all these things. At the local level, they can’t even staff these departments fully,” said Stoker, from the University of Arizona.
In Moab, fixing Kane Creek road would require roughly $2 million. Linares said they’re working with the Utah Department of Transportation and the state to secure the funding to fix it. “We’re saying we need help with this one, that the volume of traffic on this road far exceeds the numbers that we would ever put on it as a community.”
Rural communities across the West seem to be saying the same thing: we need help.
Most people agree that infrastructure across the U.S. is in dire straights. But when it comes to fixing the problem, consensus is harder to find.