"A once-in-a-generation opportunity" is how Biden administration officials are describing the potential improvements available to rural communities in Oklahoma through the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Approved by Congress and signed by the president last fall, the law will provide Oklahoma with about $5 billion over the next five years, to be spent on things such as providing broadband internet access in areas that currently have poor service, improving water and wastewater treatment systems, and fixing up rural roads and bridges.
"This is a real opportunity here and I don’t think people should miss out on it," said Kenneth Corn, the USDA's director of rural development for Oklahoma. "I mean, the president has instructed his appointees all across the country to make sure this money is spent wisely and where it’s needed -- don’t let the fear of being involved with the federal government keep you from getting the investments you need that makes life better in rural America."
Corn, a former state senator from rural eastern Oklahoma, is traveling the state and speaking with local leaders about ways their communities might benefit from provisions of the law.
"I recently visited a program over in Seminole, we looked at their water and wastewater treatment facility," Corn said in a zoom interview last week. "Their wastewater treatment facility was still using structures from the WPA era--that speaks volumes about the quality of work from the people in the WPA, but it’s almost 100 years old, and so this is an opportunity to put a state-of-the-art facility in there."
There is about $520 million, Corn said, available to Oklahoma for clean water projects. He says there's about $100 million devoted to making sure more Oklahomans are able to access to the internet.
"When you look at Oklahoma, broadband access is really good in the central part of the state," Corn noted, "but as you move out to the edges, it gets a lot [worse], and particularly in counties that have the least amount of population and that are poor, broadband is not really there, so it will allow that to be put in place in those areas."
The law also provides the state with about $288 million over the next five years to repair failing bridges.
Corn said he understands that people, especially in a state as red as Oklahoma, may be a little skeptical when he comes around saying that the federal government wants to help them, but he says sort of outreach has been missing in recent years.
"It’s going to be my focus with our staff to go out and make sure people know that we are here to help you," said Corn. "We’re going to help you with the applications, we’re gonna walk you through the process, and if we’re not the appropriate agency to help you, we’re going to get you in touch with the one that will."
You can reach Kenneth Corn at: firstname.lastname@example.org