Development of broadband access across the White Mountains was one of the major issues Congressman Tom O’Halleran discussed recently when he visited St. Johns for a sit-down with the city’s economic development team and gave a talk there at the town hall meeting.
“We’ve gotten approval from the President,” he said. “We approved $65 billion for a three-tiered process throughout America, with the target that we’ve fought for for two years — to make sure that rural areas and tribal lands come first.”
Speaking to the White Mountain Independent during a recent phone call, O’Halleran said the first tier of the three-part plan will be to get money to rural and tribal areas. The second phase will be a grant program that, again, focuses on rural and tribal areas so a program can be started for those who can’t afford broadband to be able to get subsidies. The third tier of the program will provide subsidies for those living in poverty or below certain levels of income in urban areas.
But, he cautioned, “if all the monies are used by rural and tribal areas, the areas that already have high-speed broadband, that already have distribution centers set up, then they would not be able to have that.”
Infrastructure is also part of the concern for White Mountain communities, he said.
“The first thing we talked about (in St, Johns) was the infrastructure — how that was going to be able to provide jobs not just for St. Johns, but all of rural Arizona,” he said. “We want to be able to develop the connection between bringing businesses to rural America because of the development of high-speed broadband, development of a better education system and also better healthcare because of the broadband process. This is what different companies are looking for before they begin to move in. Rural America has waited far too long to be able to get broadband and be able to compete for economic development.”
The Infrastructure law, according to the White House, will provide money to rebuild America’s roads, bridges and rails, ensure that every American has access to high-speed internet, expand access to clean drinking water, tackle the climate crisis, advance environmental justice and invest in communities that have often been left behind.
Further, according to the White House, it will drive the creation of good-paying jobs.
“There’s $110 billion going into American roads and bridges,” O’Halleran said. “We need money throughout Arizona, and whichever program I’m talking about should be bringing jobs in, using people who live in the areas where the work is to be done.”
Centric to rural areas, he added, is development of infrastructure for water, sewer and the electrical grid.
“That’s tens of billions of dollars that will help the job markets and job development throughout rural areas,” he added. “A lot of this money is going to rural focus and it’s going to create, throughout America, two million jobs.”
O’Halleran acknowledged that jobs will be lost when the Coronado Generating Station closes — an event set to take place by 2032 — but indicated that his office has been working for the past few years to make sure that the communities impacted by the closure are “made whole.”
“We want to make sure that the notifications go out soon enough to create the economic development necessary and that the company tries to find jobs, as much as possible, for the people impacted. By making communities ‘whole,’ part of that, under our plan, is that cities, towns and counties would be able to continue to get revenue, because of the closure, on a defining scale for five to seven years — into the school districts, the fire districts and other entities that have not yet made it into the Build Back Better bill, which is where a lot of that is included.”
Job training, he indicated, is in the BBB bill, which he indicated he voted for.
“The educational opportunities for workers is in that bill,” O’Halleran said. “We have money in that bill, about a billion dollars, to be able to help redevelop communities, but not to the scale I would have liked to have seen. We’re still working toward that ultimate goal of making sure that communities are not just shut off. It’s one thing for a city to lose a business and be able to, in a fairly quick time, find that work is nearby for workers and their families. But in a rural setting, that’s just not likely and we can’t just shut off the lights and say, ‘Go home.’ People have lived there a long time and they have a huge investment.”
O’Halleran also addressed the housing shortage that people in the White Mountains know only too well.
“The nation is in a severe housing shortage brought about by years of not being able to keep up with the demand,” he said. “That (BBB) bill, which hasn’t gotten out of the Senate yet, has $150 billion in it to help build housing for people. The infrastructure bill is two million jobs. The Build Back Better bill is seven million jobs.”
The congressman said that he and his cohorts have worked hard to develop the BBB bill into a framework “that’s mostly paid for.”
He added that the only thing holding the bill up in the Senate is Senator Joe Manchin, who indicated in December 2021, that he could not support the legislation and would not vote for it.
“The only thing lacking in getting that bill through to the President’s desk is Senator Manchin’s vote,” O’Halleran said.
When told that it doesn’t look like Manchin is going to budge on the issue, O’Halleran responded, “Well, he’s opened up the door again and it’s just like myself: I’m responsible to answer to my constituents, and he has to answer to his constituents. And hopefully he’ll make the right choice for the people that live in West Virginia.”
West Virginians, however, seem to be behind Manchin’s “no” vote on the bill.
A recent poll conducted by MBE Research found that 74% of West Virginians believe that Manchin should stand firm against the bill and support him in his stance against it.
O’Halleran said he will be back in the White Mountains in a couple of weeks to “develop a process where we work with communities in a collaborative way.”
“We want to reach out to all communities up there to try to find a way to work on a regional basis to bring the power of the money that the federal government is providing into partnerships so that we can expand the amount of money to create economic development within the area,” he said.