This Nebraska Republican says it’s time to think big on rural investment

Why We Wrote This

When improving America’s infrastructure comes up ​– as is happening now in Washington ​– it often conjures images of wider urban highways. But some of the biggest needs may actually be in rural America.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Mayor Josh Moenning stands by a flood control channel and levee that helped save his town of Norfolk, Nebraska, from recent floods. To him, this infrastructure symbolizes the kind of forward-thinking investment that is needed now to revive rural America.

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After seeing his city saved from recent floods thanks to levees built more than 50 years ago, Josh Moenning is taking a cue. The mayor of Norfolk, Nebraska, says, “Let’s not just rebuild and replace, let’s rethink and reposition how rural Nebraska interfaces with the new economy.”

U.S. infrastructure needs are already on the radar at the federal level ​– the subject of a meeting Tuesday between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders. And investment has boosted rural areas before, such as when land-grant colleges in the 1800s spurred farm productivity. But many counties in “flyover America” today are struggling to retain people and job opportunities.

Mayor Moenning wants better internet service, wider and safer roads, and new safeguards against extreme weather. His agenda meshes with that of a coalition called Rebuild Rural, representing rural businesses, farmers, and communities.

“I’m old enough to remember when there was a similar pessimism about our cities,” Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, wrote in an article on rural economies last year. “The first step in thinking about the problems of distressed rural areas is to approach them as solvable.”

The bridge and river channel in Norfolk, Nebraska, look decidedly ordinary until Mayor Josh Moenning starts to tell his story:

“The water ​– you see the bottom of the bridge deck? ​– it was lapping at the deck,” he recalls of last month’s epic flooding here in northeastern Nebraska. The flood control channel “was at almost 90% [capacity] and the north fork of the Elkhorn River upstream was continuing to rise. It had already ravaged communities like Pierce and Osmond and we knew this was real and that we needed to begin evacuations.”

About a third of the city was evacuated. “But in the end, it was this levee system that saved the day for Norfolk,” he adds. “It was that infrastructure investment that was made back in the ’60s to not only build this channel, but to engineer it to withstand and hold so much water, that diverted floodwaters out of the city and saved us from a lot of loss and damage.”

If city leaders had the foresight more than 50 years ago to invest in infrastructure that would save their city from a monster 21st-century storm, shouldn’t Nebraskans today do the same? he asks. “Let’s not just rebuild and replace, let’s rethink and reposition how rural Nebraska interfaces with the new economy.”

It might sound as quaint as an Andy Griffith rerun to suggest rebuilding rural America. In a hyperpartisan era in which Washington is preoccupied with congressional investigations and political posturing for next year’s elections, why would anyone invest in the emptiest portions of flyover states, especially when they’re stuck in what looks like irreversible decline?

But rural America has cheerleaders who are far more optimistic.

“I’m old enough to remember when there was a similar pessimism about our cities, which appeared during the 1970s and 1980s to be doomed to perpetual decline. They weren’t,” wrote Tom Barkin, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, in a bank publication last year looking at the problem. “From my perspective, the first step in thinking about the problems of distressed rural areas is to approach them as solvable.”

Declines in infrastructure and in populations

In Washington, the question of improving the nation’s infrastructure ​– rural as well as urban ​– is on the radar for both parties. President Donald Trump’s schedule Tuesday included a meeting on the issue with top Democrats, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. The two sides have different visions, but it’s an area of potential compromise, in which Mr. Trump’s proposals have included block-grant funding for rural roads.

For rural rebuilding to occur, a mental shift may be needed not just among politicians but rural Americans themselves.

Every year, rural kids go off to college in the cities and suburbs, says John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, a family farm and ranch organization based in Lincoln. “They get good educations and a look at what more cultural, more entertainment, and economic opportunities look like [in the cities]. And a very high percentage of those kids stay and they don’t go back home. And they do that in most cases with the encouragement of their parents.”

Rural America is a complicated mosaic. Some counties are growing because they’re getting the spillover of suburban sprawl. Others are benefiting from the fracking boom or the tourist trade. But in many of its flat, not-so-scenic spaces, rural America is aging and its workers, less educated than their peers in metropolitan areas, struggle because of few jobs and low wages. In 1910, more than half of Americans lived in rural areas; today, it’s fewer than 1 in 5.

In previous times of stress, the United States has invested in rural America with dramatic results. In the midst of the Civil War, the U.S. established land-grant colleges to teach practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering, which were the basis for today’s state universities and helped make American farmers the most productive in the world.

In the middle of the Great Depression, Congress approved funds for rural electrification. Within a decade, the percentage of farms with electricity jumped from 10% to 40%; by the early 1970s, it was 98%.  

A GOP mayor with clean energy vision

Nebraska’s March flooding offers a significant test case. With an estimated $1.4 billion in damage and 81 of its 93 counties eligible for disaster aid, the state is moving to repair its infrastructure. It’s an opportunity Mayor Moenning here in Norfolk doesn’t want to pass up.

“When we fix mangled highways, why not put in place the fiber optics and telecommunications infrastructure that addresses that rural broadband gap that politicians have talked about for so long?” he asks. Instead of fixing the region’s two-lane highways, why not the four-lane corridors that rural Nebraskans were promised decades ago?

Let’s “rebuild electricity transmission infrastructure that helps meet growing market demands for clean energy and accommodates the renewable energy generation potential that the state has in abundance,” he adds. “And I think, finally, when you’re looking at disaster-control infrastructure, why not start planning for what we once considered 100- and 500-year floods to be more like 10- or 15-year floods?”

The mayor, a Republican, doesn’t exactly fit the mold of a red-state politician. He drives a Subaru in pickup country, directs a wind-energy advocacy group, and sports blue shoelaces on his black wingtips. (“I bought them this way,” he explains. “I like to shake things up.”)

But his agenda is very much in line with the investments supported by Rebuild Rural, a coalition of more than 240 groups representing farmers, agricultural cooperatives, and rural businesses, communities, and families. And there is precedent for rural America taking advantage of disaster to rebuild for the 21st century.

After a powerful tornado leveled 95% of Greensburg, Kansas, in 2007, state Gov. Kathleen Sebelius suggested rebuilding it in a sustainable way. “It wasn’t that radical an idea,” says Matt Christenson, Greensburg’s current mayor. “Frankly, a lot of the ideas around sustainability are straightforward. In the long term, they save more money.”

With lots of federal help and funds secured by the Kansas congressional delegation, Greensburg outfitted its new city and county buildings, the hospital, and the school with geothermal heating and cooling. Some have solar panels. Some have green roofs (where drought resistant plants help insulate the buildings). Instead of the expensive old diesel engines that used to run the municipal power plant, the city now buys its energy from a local wind farm. It’s considered one of the greenest small cities in the nation.

“I’m committed to my community,” says Mayor Christenson. “Definitely, rural America faces challenges. But with challenges comes opportunity.”

Trump administration task force

And there are signs that the Trump administration is addressing some of the long-term challenges in a region that strongly supported him in the last presidential election. In April 2017, President Trump established the Interagency Task Force on Agriculture and Rural Prosperity, which has since come up with recommendations around five areas: improving internet connectivity, quality of life, the rural workforce, technology and education, and economic development.     

For example: The administration has refocused an Obama-era program of transportation grants onto mostly rural roads and bridges, and away from urban walking, biking, and transit projects. Widening two-way roads to four lanes not only encourages commerce by making it easier and faster for trucks to travel, it also would improve safety. A Congressional Research Service study last year found that the rate of fatal accidents on rural roads was more than double the rate on urban roads.

Another push is high-speed internet, considered essential for 21st-century commerce. Some 6% of Americans (and nearly a quarter of those in rural areas) lack access to fixed broadband service, according to a 2018 Federal Communications Commission report. And although a 2019 draft report suggests progress in rural areas, the estimated gains may be overstated.

The FCC considers Iowa essentially fully served by broadband, for instance. Yet nearly 500,000 speed tests run last year suggest Iowans reach those speeds only 22% of the time, according to The New Food Economy, an online nonprofit newsroom.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was accepting applications for at least $600 million in grants and loans to increase rural broadband access through a new program. The pilot program more than doubles the USDA money available to companies willing to undertake the time and expense to give rural homes high-speed access.

One set of groups in the mix to do that are rural electric cooperatives, which brought electricity to these same regions some 80 years ago. To take advantage of the new federal money, Mississippi and Georgia have passed legislation to allow cooperatives to accept such funds.

Some efforts to rebuild rural America are bipartisan.

Earlier this month, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., introduced a bill authorizing $25 million in grants to help rural electric co-ops develop storage and microgrid projects for renewable energy over the next five years. The effort builds on a federal Department of Energy program that ran from 2013 to 2018, which boosted rural co-ops’ production of solar power more than tenfold.

“Rural complements urban and urban complements rural, and we’re all in this together,” Mayor Moenning says. “The better we understand that, the more we work together [and] the brighter the opportunities will be.”

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