CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Rapids officials left a meeting Monday with President Donald Trump at the White House feeling, at minimum, that the city’s flood control needs are on the radar screen at the highest levels of the administration.
The hope that a new door could open to help pay for the city $750 million flood control system comes thanks to Trump’s $1.5 trillion infrastructure spending plan released the same day.
Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart and mayors and governors from a handful of other communities and states with critical infrastructure needs met with Trump and top aides.
But even if the plan passes Congress — and that’s a long shot — it doesn’t guarantee money for Cedar Rapids.
“This at least will give us another opportunity to get some federal help,” Hart said in an interview from Washington.
From Iowa, Hart, Cedar Rapids City Manager Jeff Pomeranz and Speaker of the Iowa House Linda Upmeyer, R-Clear Lake, attended the two-hour meeting.
Trump and several members of his inner circle participated, including Ivanka Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Pruitt.
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Trump’s plan includes $200 billion in new federal spending over 10 years, with 25 percent of the $200 billion earmarked for rural infrastructure and distributed to governors through block grants. The federal dollars would cover up to 20 percent of a project’s cost, but the local public and private sectors would have to account for the rest.
Hart and Pomeranz viewed the plan as an additional funding source, on top of the $70 to $80 million already approved but not appropriated.
“We continue to get Cedar Rapids’ name out there and create understanding about what Cedar Rapids went through, how we responded and what our needs are,” Pomeranz said.
While the state has committed $267 million through a sales tax initiative over 20 years and the city has committed $110 million, a $300 to $350 million gap still exists, Hart said.
Should Cedar Rapids be approved under Trump’s plan, the city likely would lobby the state to allow it to retain more of its sales tax revenue, and could turn to bonding, Hart said.
Cedar Rapids has an additional $280 million in bonding capacity, but additional bonding could also trigger tax increases, officials have said.
“Say the bill might give us $50 million or $100 million, but only if we match that,” Hart said. “If that happens, we’d go to the state and look at implications of bonding.”
The flood control system would protect the east and west side of the Cedar River from the historic 2008 flood volume. That flood caused more than $5 billion in damages and losses.
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Upmeyer spoke during the meeting identifying some of Iowa’s needs, including money for locks and dams and the Cedar Rapids project, to which Trump noted his awareness that Cedar Rapids officials were present.
Hart said he did not present the Cedar Rapids project during the meeting, but provided documents to Trump aides. Pomeranz also presented Ivanka Trump with a blown-up picture from a Trump campaign stop at the McGrath Amphitheatre before the 2016 election to give to her father.
Hart spoke to Trump directly afterward.
“I thanked him for inviting us, and said I know you have fond memories of Cedar Rapids from your visit,” Hart said. “I said we need help getting the $78 million from the Corps of Engineers and mentioned the problems with the benefit-cost ratio. He said, ‘I’m going to fix that.’”
The Cedar Rapids project was authorized by Congress in 2014 and 2016, but the Army Corps has never released the money largely because it doesn’t measure up to other projects on a benefit-cost ratio.
Gov. Kim Reynolds called Cedar Rapids’ inclusion in the meeting a good opportunity for the flood project. She also said she is “extremely happy” the plan calls for rural infrastructure, noting the need to expand rural broadband.
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