How Arizona leaders balance environmental sustainability and economic growth
Sustainability and economic growth may seem like two concepts in tension, but groups such as Arizona Forward are working to create harmony between these objectives. Lori Singleton, president and CEO of Arizona Forward, explains that for more than 50 years, her organization has been a convener of dialogue between governments, businesses and residents to work towards meeting climate action goals. This cooperation is especially important for Arizona considering the federal dollars available for such projects through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
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“We see the [IIJA] and IRA funds as a catalyst to make positive changes,” she says. “Arizona Forward is not going to be out front asking for any grant money. Our role is to support the cities and businesses who want to put together projects or improve infrastructure and transportation.”
Braden Kay, sustainability director for the City of Tempe and a board member of Arizona Forward, says that the collaborative nature of Arizona Forward was on display when the group marshaled support for the IRA.
“Arizona Forward has great relationships with our federal delegation,” he says. “Even before the bill passed, they helped our mayor be in constant communication with Senator Sinema’s office and Senator Kelly’s office to make sure they knew all that Arizona stood to gain from the passage of both the infrastructure bill and the IRA.”
Drawing down dollars
Arizona is ready to spend those funds, Kay continues, and needs to invest in drought resilience, heat mitigation and wildfire preparedness, along with transportation and energy infrastructure.
“These are all things that the state needs to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” he says. “Arizona Forward has been an incredible convener and megaphone for making sure those investments come here.”
Adds incoming Arizona Forward board chair Aaron Meilleur, senior vice president and area manager for HDR Engineering, “You can’t sit back and expect [federal funds] to fall in your lap and be implemented. It takes work, and that’s what the organization is trying to facilitate.”
While the gears of government turn slowly, some money is starting to flow to Arizona. In August 2022, the City of Phoenix received a $25 million Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to construct the Rio Salado Bike and Pedestrian Bridge, thanks to funds authorized through the IIJA.
Arizona Forward advocated for the bridge, with Singleton penning a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg prior to the grant being awarded.
“This project will deliver dedicated bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure to improve safety, increase mobility, prioritize equity-based project investment, encourage economic development and promote environmentally sustainable modal choices and investments,” she writes. “Specifically, the connection created by the bridge to those who may not have other transportation options is critically important.”
Sustainability and economic growth
Another tranche of IIJA dollars is headed to Arizona to help build out a national electric vehicle (EV) charging network. The state is expected to receive approximately $76.5 million for the project.
“[The Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT)] has picked five highways that they’re going to be putting that infrastructure in,” Kay explains. “There will be more [U.S.] Department of Energy and [U.S.] Department of Transportation funding for EV charging that Tempe will be able to access, but now the focus is with ADOT getting [EV charging stations] out along our interstates.”
Singleton notes that there are opportunities for businesses to apply for funds, but that they often don’t employ staff who are familiar with the process. That’s why Arizona Forward has a working group planned with the Arizona State University (ASU) Sustainable Cities Network to bring cities and businesses to discuss opportunities to work together.
Regional collaboration in general, she continues, makes for stronger proposals than if a municipality attempts to tap into federal funds alone.
“It’s better if everyone works together and all the cities get money than each city competing with each other,” Singleton says. “Our role is to facilitate dialogue between cities, businesses, community organizations and nonprofits to discuss what these proposals are and to make them stronger. That increases the chances for money coming to Arizona as opposed to Arkansas.”