$1.2 Trillion in Infrastructure Funds in Play
By Jay Gonzales
There’s a key scene in a famous 1980s movie in which a main character looks at himself in a mirror before a life-changing meeting, adjusts his tie and says, “Life all comes down to a few moments. This is one of them.”
The Tucson region is at one of those moments in time, leaders say, when it can either invest in itself and continue the economic development momentum of the last few years or play catchup to others who do.
The moment stems from the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed by Congress last year that will pump money into the infrastructure of U.S. communities.
“We have got a once-in-a-lifetime shot in the next 24 to 36 months with this federal infrastructure money coming down so we better be in line to get it,” said Joe Snell, president and CEO of Sun Corridor Inc. “That means not only getting funding from Washington and making sure we get our fair share of state money, but investing in ourselves.”
The backlog of infrastructure needs in the region nears hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps even billions. Efforts like the Regional Transportation Authority, the extension of a half-cent sales tax in the City of Tucson and millions in funding from local governments have made a dent. But the conversation about Tucson among site selectors and companies looking to relocate here still focuses on infrastructure needs and talent acquisition and retention.
“Our roads need investment, but so does everything else like trails and sidewalks,” Snell said. “We had a good start with the light rail, but we need to do more of that.”
Infrastructure and talent acquisition are two key focus areas in the Pivot Playbook, the recovery plan assembled by members of Sun Corridor Inc. as an economic development action plan coming out of the pandemic.
Retired Raytheon executive Steve Eggen and Cox Communications Market VP Lisa Lovallo, a member of the Sun Corridor Inc. Chairman’s Circle, are spearheading the implementation of the playbook’s infrastructure and talent initiatives.
“The challenges I think many regions face − and I think one of the challenges that we certainly face as a region − are that we have to have investment in order to grow our economy and grow in our community,” Eggen said, noting that the infrastructure bill provides that investment opportunity. “We have to demonstrate why it should come to our region. We can’t let this opportunity pass us by.”
There are plenty of projects for which to make a pitch for the federal dollars being made available to communities. Every municipality in the region is busy submitting grant requests for major projects like rebuilding the 22nd Street bridge between Kino Boulevard and Tucson Boulevard to more specific needs like improving broadband throughout the community.
Sun Corridor Inc. and the Pivot Playbook steering committee are trying to show a cohesive strategy to give the entities a better shot at getting the funding. Sun Corridor Inc. members have been meeting with the various government entities, particularly the Tucson and Pima County governments, “to understand what are their priorities from an infrastructure standpoint,” Eggen said.
“Our position is that we can then use the business community to help facilitate and demonstrate from an overall governmental standpoint where this impacts the businesses in the community. We can’t do a shotgun approach,” Eggen said. “We have to identify, say half a dozen or a dozen specific projects that we can go after and capture those tangible dollars to show an immediate result in the community.”
Tucson Mayor Regina Romero said the passing of Proposition 411, a 10-year extension of a half-cent city sales tax to be used for road projects, in May is an example of how Tucson is investing in itself, which Snell and Eggen agreed is an important aspect of showing the region is worthy of the federal infrastructure dollars available.
“The passing of Prop 411 represents a $740M shot in the arm for Tucson’s streets and mobility infrastructure,” Romero said. “We also directed $65 million of our American Rescue Plan dollars across the next two years for transformational investments to promote affordable and stable housing, community reinvestment and relief for families, essential and frontline workers, and small businesses.”
New Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher said the initiatives in the Pivot Playbook were a guide for the county in making its decisions on which federal infrastructure grants to pursue.
“What we did was take all the different opportunities that we saw that might be on our list for possible funding that we might receive, and we did a crosswalk with the Pivot Playbook,” Lesher said, adding that the county wants to make sure, going forward, that municipalities in Pima County are at the table and that Sun Corridor Inc. can help guide the efforts.
Lesher said, “going after federal money is great, but if we’re all looking for different things, and we’re not focused on critical elements, it’s not as helpful.”
Then, the key is to show progress with the millions coming your way, Eggen said.
“You need to first capture the dollars, then you need to be able to put them into action,” he said. “What happens when you put them into action? No. 1, you create jobs immediately. No. 2, you start to demonstrate your ability to improve your community to attract more investment. It’s kind of a synergistic thing that happens when that occurs.”