Updates planned: USDA announces $95 million investment in Michigan rural infrastructure

HOUGHTON — On Thursday, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced a $95 million investment in Michigan rural infrastructure — part of a national initiative that will distribute a total of $5.2 billion for rural infrastructure development in 46 states and Puerto Rico.

According to a USDA press release, the goal of the Michigan investment is to expand access to high-speed internet, clean water, and dependable electric power in rural homes and businesses across the state.

The funds will be distributed to Michigan communities in the form of grants and loans, which will be divided between seven different water and sewer projects, and two electric projects. Four of these projects are in the Upper Peninsula.

According to Brandon Fewins, the USDA Rural Development state director for Michigan, investment in the state’s infrastructure is long overdue.

“We should have been doing this years ago. The longer we wait, the more it’s going to cost us in the long run,” he said. “This will help us make upgrades to our aging infrastructure, no matter what type of infrastructure that is.”

Fewins spoke with the Gazette on Friday to provide additional information on the Michigan infrastructure and rural development investment.

“USDA Rural Development really is the economic development arm for rural America,” he said. “Our vision is to assist communities with accomplishing their objectives. When we invest in infrastructure, we’re really investing in ourselves and making a better place for our families and communities.”

One of the U.P. projects is in Houghton County, where a $3 million grant will help update the facilities at the Torch Lake Area Sewage Authority. The grant will be used to install additional lined lagoons, install a liner in the existing seepage lagoons at each site, add lagoon treatment piping and structures, and install lagoon discharge piping and outfall for seasonal discharge to local rivers.

In Ontonagon County’s Carp Lake Township, a $713,000 loan and $1,202,000 grant will be used to replace over two miles of sewer collection equipment, in addition to other facility updates. Ontonagon County will also receive an $8,285,000 loan to improve 92 miles of electric line and install smart grid technology.

The final U.P. project is in Negaunee, where a $5.5 million loan will fund water system improvements including the replacement of 15,000 feet of water main and the installation of new hydrants and valves.

The USDA awarded funding to these U.P. communities after they requested financing assistance for the projects through an application process. Funding was allocated to the USDA by the federal government through the annual budget appropriations process.

An important secondary goal of these infrastructure projects is job creation. The USDA believes that investment in infrastructure and rural development will create local jobs and bring economic benefits to rural communities.

“Anytime you’re talking about a new sewage facility or just upgrading the existing one, it takes ‘people power’ to go in there and do the job,” Fewins explained. “That means there are people that are going to work on those projects, they’re going to spend money at the gas station, they’re going to spend money at the local diner. And so the secondary benefits when you invest in the infrastructure really do create a multiplying effect.”

He also said that communities can expect additional investment in rural development projects in the near future, due to the passage of the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill in November.

Now that the president has signed this bill into law, the federal government is in the process of directing these funds into various infrastructure projects, as well as distributing funding to states. Fewins predicted that Michiganders will begin to see these dollars at work in 2022.

“Over the next several years, we’re going to see record investments in a variety of different ways, whether it’s expanding access to broadband, clean drinking water and sewer projects, alternative energy projects, or updating our power grid and investing in resiliency to protect against the changing climate,” he said.

With additional funding on its way, the USDA wants to collaborate with communities to address their infrastructure needs. Fewins highlighted the importance of ensuring that historically underserved communities have equitable access to USDA programs and funding.

“We’re trying to raise additional awareness that we have this window of opportunity right now and we want to make sure that folks take advantage of it. We can bring federal tax dollars back home,” he explained.

Fewins emphasized that the infrastructure and rural development projects are controlled by the communities, with local decision making and execution.

“At the end of the day, these are locally driven decisions throughout the whole process,” he said. We [the USDA] are just there to make sure that they have access to the low interest loans and grants throughout the process. We can provide a rate that’s lower than the market rate on loans, so it makes a lot of sense to collaborate with us and then we also have the opportunity to kick in some additional grant dollars here and there.”

“We have housing programs, we have rural business programs, and we have rural utility service programs. So, we have a lot of different programs out there for communities to check out and we want them to be looking into them,” he continued. “We want to make sure that they realize that we can assist them with projects, and we’re willing to come and sit down with them.”

Fewins encouraged communities interested in upgrading infrastructure and pursuing their own rural development projects to contact the USDA. More information is available on line at www.rd.usda.gov/mi.


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