ARPA and infrastructure/environmental coverage tips – Advice Eating

In our third and final session on the American Rescue Plan Act, reporter Shelby Harris said something important to all of us about the millions in federal-to-local funding — every ARPA dollar spent on a project is not an ARPA dollar spent anywhere else.

There is no recipe for how this money is spent. It’s mostly up to local governments to spend it at all. You could just use it to cover budget gaps due to the pandemic. You could refuse. Or they could choose to fix roads and bridges but not add broadband.

There are stories about where the money goes and there are stories about where it doesn’t go.

We’ve been talking about the American Rescue Plan Act for a few months, both here and through free online training thanks to funding from the Joyce Foundation. For resources and tips, see ARPA coveragehow it is related healthcare and public safety.

Here are our tips for covering ARPA and infrastructure/environment. We were joined by Harris, a reporter at Carolina Public Press who has been on the ARPA beat for a few months, and Donovan Quintero of the Navajo Times, an environmental reporter.

Harris began with a list of acceptable uses for ARPA. They include:

  • Bonus payment (e.g. essential worker bonuses)
  • Public health initiatives (e.g. the money could be used for non-profit organizations, social services, vaccination campaigns and testing)
  • loss of revenue
  • Infrastructure (including water, sewer, broadband and road projects)

Also good to remember: All ARPA funds must be allocated by December 2024 and spent by December 2026. This might feel like a long time. But if a small community decides it needs a new sewage system, for example, it needs to get government approval, hire a firm to estimate the cost, and have it approved in less than two years.

Another reminder: smaller communities have different guidelines for how they report where ARPA dollars are going. In the absence of mandated reporting, local journalists have to fill in the blanks to see where the funds are going.

And that, Harris said, requires some old-school journalism. Most local governments have an online site where you can access agendas and minutes. Search these for ARP or ARPA to get a clue as to where the money might go, then reach out to city councils and engineering firms. If all else fails, request the meeting notes.

Harris shared these tips to keep in mind when reporting on ARPA-funded infrastructure projects:

  • Remember to focus on the impact of the project.
  • How long is the project needed? Does the city have historical issues related to the project?
  • How long will it take and how many people will it affect?
  • How will the project benefit the community in the long term?

Some other questions to ask:

  • What is ARPA not used for?
  • Should the money really be spent on this? (Think Bridge to Nowhere.)
  • What does the community think of funding this project with COVID-19 relief funds?
  • How will this project solve existing societal and structural problems?
  • Who in the community will be affected by this infrastructure and how can I speak to them?

Screenshot, Navajo Times

Many infrastructure projects are of course also environmental projects. That is something you will often Find at Quintero work for the Navajo Times.

He suggested these three questions to include in your reporting:

  • How do we conserve the precious resources we have left?
  • How does public policy affect it?
  • What are the experts talking about?

Quintero’s reporting encompasses policymakers and academics, but also the culture of the place he reports on and the stories of the people he reports on.

Here are a few more resources from the Society for Environmental Journalism:

If you missed our training but still want to learn hands-on, drop by these tips by IRE on ARPA, which includes a spreadsheet cheat sheet, an IRE mini boot camp on Google Sheets, and a Google Sheets data exercise template.

If you cover ARPA, we’d love to see and share your work. You can send it to me at khare@poynter.org.

This piece originally appeared in Local editionour newsletter dedicated to the stories of local journalists.

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