At a Tuesday morning news conference, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson laid out several proposals her administration has presented to U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith in hopes of obtaining project-specific congressional allocations, often called earmarks.
Congress banned earmarks in 2010 after a host of lawmakers' pet projects were exposed as dubious endeavors, including the infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" proposed in Ketchikan, Alaska. That project received a $223 million earmark but was later scrapped amid a chorus of criticism regarding perceived wasteful federal spending.
But a number of lawmakers in the House and Senate are looking to revive "congressionally directed spending items" — a euphemism for earmarks — as a way to remedy political gridlock and dysfunction.
And Larson made it clear she couldn't be happier about the prospect of tapping additional federal funds via earmarks.
"As an elected leader, I'm thrilled that they're back. There is no guarantee that we will see these dollars," she said. "I'm not thrilled because I just know we're going to get everything we ask for. But I love that there is the ability to allow for some regionality and some specificity, whether it's in a county or a municipality or some geography that is very specific to that need."
Duluth has submitted five proposals that would collectively cost $44.5 million to fund:
- $4 million to dredge the harbor behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center to provide adequate draft for cruise ships to dock there.
- $5.8 million for a "City-Wide Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy and Electric Vehicle Charging Demonstration Project."
- $12 million to overhaul and paint the Aerial Lift Bridge, including repairs to the concrete tower base and wing walls, as well as the surrounding bituminous surfacing.
- $750,000 for public safety data and technology enhancements that would upgrade 911 service and enhance record-keeping, internal affairs investigations and crime analytics.
- $22 million to invest in outdated fire stations and remodel them to provide better gender-equity accommodations for firefighters.
For about the past five weeks, Larson said city staff have been working intensely to prepare application materials in pursuit of federal earmarks.
"This came very quickly. The opportunity from Sens. Klobuchar and Smith was opened up in a very efficient window, and we had to submit a set of projects," she said.
Larson said city staff generated a large $260 million slate of ideas to help the community emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. That list of ideas was winnowed down to the proposals she presented Tuesday, and Larson said both senators received them "with great enthusiasm and energy."
Regardless of Duluth's success in seeking federal earmarks, city leaders also will need to determine how best to use a separate $58.1 million in pandemic relief funds the community will receive through the American Rescue Plan. Larson said her administration will consult with the Duluth City Council in coming weeks and aims to come forward with a set of recommendations for consideration before councilors begin their summer break in July.