Cedar Rapids city leaders won some symbolic victories at the White House this week.
Just being invited over to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. suggests key officials in the highest reaches of the executive branch know about the city’s quest for federal flood control funding. Mayor Brad Hart and City Manager Jeff Pomeranz were able to put detailed information into the hands of those decision-makers. Hart even got a few moments of face time with President Donald Trump to pitch the need for funding.
“He looked at me and said, ‘We’re going to take care of that,’” Hart told me by phone after the meeting, a big media show staged to sell Trump’s new infrastructure plan.
And, perhaps most importantly, the president did not slap anyone from Cedar Rapids with a “low energy,” “lying” or “loser” nickname.
“It’s definitely useful. Time well spent,” Pomeranz told me afterward.
But beyond the symbolism, the substance changed little.
Cedar Rapids has been lobbying for the better part of a decade to convince the Army Corps of Engineers to provide its promised $70 million-plus share of funding for $750 million worth of flood walls, removable flood walls and levees. Congress authorized the spending, but money has not been appropriated.
Former Mayor Ron Corbett also has been to the White House, multiple times. Officials have visited with Corps leaders at all levels. The city has paid for professional lobbying help. Iowa’s U.S. senators, Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, have been pressing the Corps to revise its benefit cost analysis, which gave Cedar Rapids’ project a low score.
First District U.S. Rep. Rod Blum has been all over the flood protection issue. It’s true he did move his downtown Cedar Rapids office from a ground floor storefront to the second floor, but don’t read anything into that.
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So Corps funding remains stuck at this hour. Officials now are pinning hopes to the infrastructure plan Trump unveiled in their midst.
It’s a bigly $1.5 trillion plan, with $200 billion in federal money. The rest must come from local governments, states and the private sector. Would Cedar Rapids need to come up with more matching funds? Does state and local money already being spent on the project count? How willing is the private sector to pony up tens of millions of dollars?
Even that $200 billion is no sure thing. It comes from cuts to other areas, which the legislative branch may or may not like. The whole thing must still be “refined” by Congress. It’s complicated, but just think of refining the curb appeal of your home with dynamite and a bulldozer.
So maybe there are two paths to funding. And maybe there are two big, beautiful dead ends.
It clearly made sense for city leaders to make the White House trip. It’s an invitation that’s tough to refuse. But the writing on the flood wall still suggests this is going to be a job Cedar Rapids leaders will have to handle without much help from federal bucks. As the feds fiddle, the city remains at risk.
After all the presidential pomp, high-level elbow-rubbing and Ivanka sightings, this funding quest still feels like a very long shot. Sad!
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