WASHINGTON — At a rare formal press conference in January, President Biden hailed the $1 trillion infrastructure package recently approved by Democrats and Republicans, promising miles of roads will be rebuilt, railroads and bridges upgraded, and America’s public transportation system expanded would become a source of international envy.
On the same day, 16 Republican governors sent a letter to Mr. Biden that underscored the great challenge he faces in turning his ambitions for the law into reality.
The governors pushed back federal attempts, outlined in a memo, to encourage states to use the funds to repair roads rather than expand them, which the Biden administration said would exacerbate auto emissions. The letter urged the government not to use the law to advance their “social agenda,” which they said would hamper their own goals for the package, and to give them “maximum regulatory flexibility” over how the funds are used .
Mr. Biden promoted the law and pledged to repair 65,000 miles of roads and 1,500 bridges in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. He has spent the last few weeks touring the country selling the package, which is central to his broader agenda of reducing emissions, promoting racial justice, creating jobs and supporting disadvantaged households. But much of its success rests with the heads of state, who can decide how to spend much of the funding and who may not always share the president’s goals.
At the heart of these tensions 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 responsible for ensuring that a key part of the president’s agenda is carried out on his terms.
He has engaged in an outreach campaign with state and local leaders to achieve Mr. Biden’s vision, spoken to nearly every governor and more than 55 mayors, and toured the country promoting the law. On February 16, Mr. Landrieu met with a bipartisan group of senators to discuss their goals for the funding.
Some state leaders said their priorities are well aligned 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 the ancient infrastructure, which is the key to economic development. It’s about fairness and justice.”
But others, while accepting the money, have balked at federal attempts to control how it’s spent.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who signed the Jan. 19 letter, said states, particularly those outside the East Coast, needed the space to meet their own priorities, such as building new highways. He also said expanding Amtrak service, a key goal of the Biden administration, is “not very helpful” in Nebraska given its lower population density.
Mr Landrieu called Mr Ricketts in November to discuss how the two sides could coordinate their efforts. While the governor said he appreciated the call, he’s not optimistic that the Biden administration will give states the flexibility they need.
“Range doesn’t matter if you want to limit us,” Mr. Ricketts said.
Republican lawmakers, several of whom voted with Democrats to pass the law, have sided with the states. Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia wrote their own letter to governors, urging them to ignore the government’s memo, which they say has “no legal effect.” 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 said in an interview with the New York Times he was not surprised by the governors’ letter. “There will always be conflict in this zone,” he said of tensions between the federal and state governments.
Resolving this conflict will be a delicate balancing act. He acknowledged that governors would “make the final decision” and that some communities, such as those with fewer roads and bridges to repair, would need more flexibility.
“In those cases, it makes perfect sense that they do. Not in other states.” Mr. Landrieu said. “There has to be flexibility, and we recognize that.”
However, he made it clear that the Biden administration would continue to seek to influence the types of projects the funds were used on, including by issuing federal guidance and recommendations.
“The federal government has the power to set what they call guidelines and rules and regulations,” Mr Landrieu said.
So far, some states have shown a willingness to defy – and challenge – these rules.
Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a Republican whose state recently sued the Biden administration over efforts to regain stimulus funds, said his office is not afraid to backtrack if he thinks the federal guidance is going too far . Mr Ducey said widening the freeways is one of his top priorities for the fast-growing state.
“We don’t need any additional guidance from the federal government,” he said.
Most of the money has yet to flow, with only nearly $100 billion allocated to state and local governments, and the bulk of the funds expected to be released over the next two to three years.
This poses another challenge for Mr. Landrieu. Many of these projects could take years to complete, making it harder for Mr. Biden to highlight the impact of the law in the midterm elections and ahead of his re-election campaign.
Mr. Landrieu said he faced a similar dilemma during his tenure, pointing to the construction of the new terminal at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. This $1 billion project that he spearheaded and funded was completed after his tenure, though he did not stand for re-election. Mr Landrieu said Mr Biden will continue to promote the package, but he doesn’t think the president needs to stand next to completed projects for Americans to understand his contribution.
“Getting credit is really not that important. I mean, what you’re doing here will last for generations, we hope,” Mr Landrieu said. “So we want to go fast, but we want to do it right.”
“I have nothing to offer the African American community about their experiences,” said Mr. Landrieu. “I can share my perspective on being a white Southern man growing up during one of the most difficult times of race and the way white people here have a hard time dealing with the issue of race in a way that we recognize can our past.”
His allies described him as a detail-oriented and effective leader who knew how to break through federal bureaucracy. He built a reputation as the person who turned New Orleans around after it was run by C. Ray Nagin, who was later imprisoned on bribery and fraud charges. But he faced a mixed record at some of his infrastructure work, including his dealings with the city’s sewer and water board. He was also known as an aggressive leader who pushes his decisions, a style that angered some of his detractors.
The infrastructure law at a glance
Some said Mr. Landrieu’s experience running New Orleans equipped him for his current job. The city, with its potholed streets, centuries-old pipes and ongoing flooding problems, embodies some of the country’s worst infrastructure deficiencies.
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 had a record of making tough decisions to “get things done” and pointed towards the new airport terminal.
Paul Rainwater, who served as interim executive director of the Sewerage and Water Board, said Mr Landrieu “will not accept just one answer”.
“He wants to know the how and why,” said Mr. Rainwater.
Mr. Rainwater was responsible for turning over the Sewage and Water Board after a severe thunderstorm overwhelmed the city’s pumping and drainage network, flooding hundreds of cars and properties. After the 2017 floods, Mr Landrieu called for the resignation of some agency officials who initially claimed the system was working properly.
The situation drew criticism from the likes of Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Fire Fighters Association, who said Mr. Landrieu failed to improve the agency and oversee its leadership during his eight-year tenure.
“These problems remain,” he said.
Some who worked with Mr. Landrieu described him as an aggressive leader. Rosalind Cook, a co-president of the League of Women Voters of New Orleans, said the group met with Mr. Landrieu during his second term as mayor to discuss moving the upcoming early winter election to the fall, when voters are fewer would be distracted by the holidays and sporting events.
According to Ms Cook, Mr Landrieu firmly opposed the proposal, which could have shortened his term in office, saying change should wait.
“When he had a conflicting view, behind closed doors he was much more of a bully,” said Ms. Cook, associate professor of politics at Tulane University. The change was made later, but the inauguration date did not change, resulting in a lengthy transition.
Others said Mr Landrieu’s strong personality was an asset.
“Sometimes people aren’t always thrilled when a leader moves as decisively as Mitch has demanded over time,” said Walt Leger, a former Louisiana State Representative. “But I’ve never seen that outcome be negative for the community.”