As infrastructure money flows, Mitch Landrieu must straddle the partisan divide

WASHINGTON — In a rare official press conference in January, President Biden hailed the $1 trillion infrastructure package that Democrats and Republicans recently endorsed, promising that miles of roads would be rebuilt, railroads and bridges would be modernized and America’s public transit system would become a source of international envy.

On the same day, 16 Republican governors sent a letter to Mr. Biden who highlighted the daunting challenge he faces in turning his ambitions for the law into reality.

Governors rebuffed federal attempts, described in a note, to encourage states to use the funds to fix roads instead of expanding them, which the Biden administration says would exacerbate auto emissions. The letter urged the administration to refrain from using the law to advance its ‘social agenda’, which they said would hinder their own goals for the package, and to give them ‘maximum regulatory flexibility’ in spending funds.

Mr Biden promoted the law and pledged to fix 65,000 miles of roads and 1,500 bridges in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He has spent the past few weeks traveling across the country to sell the package, which is at the heart of his broader agenda to cut emissions, promote racial equity, create jobs and help households. disadvantaged. But much of its success rests with heads of state, who decide how to use much of the funds and who don’t always share the president’s goals.

At the center of this tension is Mitch Landrieu, the former mayor of New Orleans who helped rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. As Mr. Biden’s infrastructure czar, Mr. Landrieu is tasked with ensuring that a flagship part of the president’s agenda is carried out on his terms.

He has engaged in an advocacy campaign with state and local leaders in an effort to realize Mr. Biden’s vision, speaking with nearly every governor and more than 55 mayors and traveling the country to promote the law. On February 16, Mr. Landrieu met with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss their fundraising goals.

Some state leaders have said their priorities align well with those of the federal government, such as repairing existing roads, repairing decades-old bridges and expanding Amtrak service.

“Broadly speaking, the goals of the bill and our goals are the same,” said Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut, a Democrat. “It’s about modernizing old infrastructure that is essential for economic development. It is a question of justice and fairness. »

But others, while accepting the money, have bristled at federal attempts to guide how it is spent.

Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, who signed the Jan. 19 letter, said states, especially those off the East Coast, need the space to pursue their own priorities, such as building new highways. He also said expanding Amtrak service, a key goal of the Biden administration, was “not very helpful” in Nebraska given its less dense population.

Mr. Landrieu called Mr. Ricketts in November to discuss how the two parties could coordinate their efforts. While the governor said he appreciated the call, he isn’t optimistic the Biden administration will give states the flexibility they need.

“Awareness doesn’t matter if you want to restrict us,” Ricketts said.

Republican lawmakers, several of whom voted with Democrats to pass the law, sided with the states. Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia wrote his own letter to governors telling them to ignore the administration’s memo, which they said had “no effect of law.” On February 18, Mr. McConnell, Ms. Capito and 27 other Republican senators sent a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg criticizing the memo.

Mr Landrieu, in an interview with The New York Times, said the governors’ letter did not surprise him. “There will always be conflict in this area,” he said of the tension between the federal government and the states.

Resolving this conflict will be a delicate balancing act. He acknowledged that governors “would have the ultimate decision” and that some communities, such as those with fewer roads and bridges to repair, would need more flexibility.

“In these cases, it makes perfect sense for them to do so. In other states, this is not the case. said M. Landrieu. “There has to be flexibility in that, and we recognize that.”

But he said the Biden administration would continue to try to influence the types of projects the funds went to, including issuing federal guidance and recommendations.

“The federal government has the power to establish what it calls guidelines, rules and regulations,” Landrieu said.

So far, some states have shown a willingness to defy — and challenge — these rules.

Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona, a Republican whose state recently sued the Biden administration over its efforts to claw back stimulus funds, said his office isn’t afraid to push back if he thinks the Federal directives were too exaggerated. Ducey said expanding highways is one of his top priorities for the rapidly growing state.

“We don’t need any further direction from the federal government,” he said.

Most of the money has yet to flow, with barely nearly $100 billion allocated to state and local governments and most of the funding expected to be released over the next two to three years.

This represents another challenge for Mr. Landrieu. It could be years before many of these projects are completed, making it harder for Mr Biden to highlight the law’s impact during the midterm elections and ahead of his re-election campaign. .

Mr. Landrieu said he faced a similar dilemma while in office, pointing to the construction of the new terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. This billion-dollar project, which he pushed for and obtained funding for, was completed after his term, although he was not reelected. Mr. Landrieu said that Mr. Biden would continue to promote the package, but that he did not think the president should stand next to completed projects for Americans to understand his contribution.

“Getting credit really isn’t that important. I mean, what you’re doing here is something that’s going to last for generations, we hope,” Landrieu said. “So we want to move fast, but we want to do it right.”

“I can’t offer the African-American community anything about their experience,” Landrieu said. “I can offer my vision of being a white man from the South who grew up during one of the toughest racial times and how white people here are struggling to deal with race in a way that we allows us to recognize our past.”

His allies described him as an effective, detail-oriented leader who knew how to navigate the federal bureaucracy. He earned a reputation as someone who transformed New Orleans after it was ruled by C. Ray Nagin, who was later imprisoned for corruption and fraud. But it has faced a mixed record for some of its infrastructure work, including its management of the city’s sewer and water service. He was also known as an aggressive leader who pushed through his decisions, a style that antagonized some of his critics.

Some said Mr. Landrieu’s experience in charge of New Orleans had equipped him for his current job. The city, with its pothole-filled streets, century-old drains and persistent flooding problems, epitomizes some of the country’s most serious infrastructure shortcomings.

Cedric Richmond, one of Mr Biden’s closest advisers and a former congressman who represented most of New Orleans for a decade, said Mr Landrieu was used to making tough decisions to “get things done”, pointing to the new airport terminal.

Paul Rainwater, who served as acting executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board, said Mr Landrieu “won’t just accept an answer”.

“He wants to know the how and the why,” Mr. Rainwater said.

Mr Rainwater was tasked with straightening out the Sewerage and Water Board after a severe storm overwhelmed the city’s pump and drainage system, flooding hundreds of cars and properties. After the 2017 floods, Mr. Landrieu asked for resignation from some agency officials, who initially claimed that the system was working properly.

The situation has drawn criticism from the likes of Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, who said Landrieu had failed to improve the agency and oversee its leadership during his tenure. eight years in office.

“These issues remain,” he said.

Some of those who worked with Mr. Landrieu described him as an aggressive leader. Rosalind Cook, co-chair of the League of Women Voters of New Orleans, said the group met with Landrieu during his second term as mayor to discuss moving the upcoming election from early winter to fall, when voters would be less distracted. by holidays and sporting events.

According to Ms Cook, Mr Landrieu adamantly opposed the proposal, which could have shortened his term, and said change would have to wait.

“If he had a contradictory view, he was much more of a bully behind closed doors,” said Ms Cook, a professor of political science at Tulane University. The change was made later, but the inauguration date did not change, resulting in a longer transition.

Others said that Mr. Landrieu’s strong personality was an asset.

“Sometimes people aren’t always thrilled that a leader acts as decisively as Mitch must have done over time,” said Walt Leger, a former Louisiana state representative. “But I’ve never seen this negative result for the community.”