White House advisor Mitch Landrieu visits Nome
White House advisor Mitch Landrieu was one of the many Washington officials visiting Alaska in August to talk about the federal dollars coming to the region, and last Thursday, he was getting his boots dirty at the Port of Nome.
“This is as close to the view on the ground as you can get,” Landrieu said as huge container handlers moved cargo and kicked up mud with their tires.
Landrieu is the former mayor of New Orleans, and in 2021 he was appointed to oversee the implementation of the massive $1 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“The president’s vision was to use this bill as a forcing mechanism for federal, state and local officials to work together with the not-for-profit community, the tribal communities, the faith-based organizations to organize themselves around what the priorities are in their communities,” Landrieu told the Nugget. “I don’t think that this state has seen this level of investment from the federal government the last 50 or 60 years.”
During his tour of Alaska last week, he noted that the state has received the most investments per capita from the bill, totaling over $5 billion. One of the biggest payouts was for the Port of Nome. The bill set aside $250 million for remote and subsistence harbor construction, and in 2022, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers committed that entire amount to the first phase of the Port of Nome expansion project.
Port Director Joy Baker explained to Landrieu that arranging dock space in Nome has become like “a Tetris puzzle.” Baker said that the exports of gravel, rock and sand from the region are booming. The gravel barges have gone from exporting 40,000 tons each summer to 200,000 tons, she said. Mayor John Handeland added that the new port facilities would allow cruise ships and research vessels to dock on the east side of the harbor, which would allow easier foot traffic into town and separate passengers from the port’s industrial operations.
After seeing the needs that would be addressed by a bigger port, Landrieu also expressed an awareness that the expansion would have some consequences that the City of Nome needs to take into consideration.
“Of course, the funding for this particular port and other ports like this is going to increase the exports that are coming in and the cruise ships, and then it’s going to put pressure on the city—on sewerage, and water and public safety, health standards, and then housing, which is evidently one of the biggest challenges that everybody’s having right now,” he told the Nugget.
Earlier in the day, Landrieu and his team held a community roundtable that was closed to the press and the public but included City of Nome leadership as well as representatives from Kawerak, Bering Straits Native Corporation and other local entities. The delegation also took a bumpy drive down the Council Road to see fish camps that were damaged during last year’s Typhoon Merbok.
His stop in Nome capped a weeklong tour of Alaska, that included a visit to Anchorage as well as visits to other communities like Sourdough, Tosina, Napakiak and Napaskiak that have funds coming to them through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
“One of the things that’s very different from anything else in the Lower 48 is the level of subsistence that individuals have to engage in, especially the tribal communities—and that’s a real eye opener,” Landrieu said.
Last Tuesday, Landrieu appeared alongside Rep. Mary Peltola at the Alaska Native Heritage Center to announce $100 million in funding for three broadband infrastructure grants to communities in rural Alaska. The funds are provided through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ReConnect program.
According to a fact sheet about the grants: Bush-Tell Inc. will get about $30 million to provide fiber connections to 697 people, 38 businesses and seven educational facilities in the Bethel and Yukon-Kuskokwim census areas; Unicom Inc. will get $35 million to connect 1,472 people, 22 businesses and two educational facilities in the Bethel and Kusilvak census areas; and Cordova Telephone Cooperative Inc. will get $35 million for fiber and wireless internet for 28 people, eight businesses and one educational facility in the Hoonah-Angoon Census Area.
During the press conference announcing the grants, a reporter asked if it was a good investment of $35 million to connect 28 people. Chris McLean, assistant secretary of the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, challenged the implication that this project amounted to spending more than $1 million per person.
“The benefit is to all of America,” McLean said. “Everybody deserves to have the genius, the innovation, the contributions of the folks in Alaska, so the math should be the other way. The denominator should be the population of the United States because you’re completing our network. Because every one of these investments, even when they’re small communities, adds to a greater network of communication—and that’s our mission.”
Back in June, $70 million was appropriated from the bill to improve internet access in villages in the Nome region. Under that grant, the Mukluk Telephone Company will provide “a fiber-to-the premises network” in Little Diomede, Elim, Golovin, Koyuk, Wales and White Mountain. The Interior Telephone Company will do the same for Shaktoolik, St. Michael, Stebbins and Unalakleet. The infrastructure bill also offered $89 million for Quintillion to build a subsea broadband project from Nome to Homer.
While these big broadband projects are being rolled out, the current broadband problems in northwestern Alaska have shown that fiberoptic internet is not failsafe. Since June 11, Nome has been without access to its high-speed fiberoptic broadband after the undersea cable it relied on was scoured by sea ice and has yet to be fixed. Many residents and businesses have given up waiting and switched to satellite systems like Starlink.
When asked how these new broadband projects would mitigate major disruptions, Landrieu said that maintenance costs were built into these projects. Peltola added that local telecommunications will be key to resolving any future problems.
“I think as Alaskans, we inherently know there will be hiccups,” said Peltola. “There will be weather issues, there will be outages, and I think that it’s really important that the Alaska Broadband Office continues working with the partners like Bush-Tel, and Unicom and Cordova Telephone because they will know better than anybody what the potential issues are and how to remedy those. I think the key to that is making sure that Alaskans are at the table and welcomed for their solutions and innovative strategies around problems.”
In Nome, when asked about how these subsidies for telecom companies would translate to affordability for customers, Landrieu noted that there are federal programs available for low-income consumers to save on internet.
“You have two big issues with being connected,” Landrieu said. “One of them is making sure that there’s technology that gets from where it is now to the folks who need it. Fiber, of course, is really the technology in the future. And once you have access to the technology, then you have to afford it. So that’s why Congress and the President created the Affordable Connectivity Program, which is for people that are living at or below 200 percent of the poverty level.”
Those levels are different for Alaska than the national levels. For a household of three in Alaska, for example, that threshold would be an annual income of $62,140. The program provides subsidies of $30, and in some cases, up to $75, for monthly internet payments. Landrieu encourages consumers to visit getinternet.gov to apply for that subsidy.