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Tucson, Ariz., mayor nervously awaits passage of infrastructure bill


President Biden today promised to keep working with Democrats in Congress to find a way to pass two bills that, taken together, are the heart of his domestic agenda. But it won't be easy as Democrats continue to spar among themselves over the measures, including the president's proposed infrastructure bill. Meanwhile, for a lot of people outside of the Capitol, this all amounts to waiting for funds that are desperately needed. The mayor of Tucson, Ariz., Regina Romero, is one of those people. Improving her city's infrastructure was one of the key commitments she made in her campaign for the office in 2019. And Mayor Regina Romero is with us now.

Madame Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us.

REGINA ROMERO: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: First of all, the bills that Congress is debating right now, I think most people keep hearing about them in the context of the big number, you know, the $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill. But I wanted to ask - what passage of those bills would mean to you and to your city?

ROMERO: Well, the funding in the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better agenda will go towards critical needs in the city of Tucson and I'm pretty sure other cities. But these are critical to the - really, survival. I don't want to be dramatic but really to the survival of our cities. For example, in Tucson, we're the first fastest warming city in the country, and we are living with the effects of climate change in a historic drought. And Tucson, a beautiful desert city, relies on water. And there's a couple of things in terms of living in a drought and the effects of climate change.

A few of the projects in those bills are significantly important for the city of Tucson, one, because it has funds for the Western water infrastructure, which will help us address shortages in the Colorado River. And then, of course, the infrastructure piece, which is trying to change our transit systems into zero-emission systems. To reduce our region's carbon footprint is incredibly important to try to remediate the heat that we've been seeing rising throughout the decades.

MARTIN: What are some of the things that that would do? So you're saying - what would it help - what would this money help you do? Would it help you overhaul your fleets so - your city vehicles so that they could be zero carbon? Like, give me another - give me some more examples of exactly what you would do with it.

ROMERO: Well, just the other day, a couple of days ago, we did a ribbon cutting for five transit buses, five zero-emission transit buses, and those are zero-emissions. Thirty percent of our greenhouse gases are created by our transit system, diesel buses that we have. We have 297 buses in our bus fleet in the city of Tucson. And we want to change out those buses so that we can bring down those greenhouse gases in the city of Tucson.

MARTIN: So, you know, we keep talking about the division among the Democrats. One of your senators from Arizona, Kyrsten Sinema, is in fact a big part of the story because she's one of the two Democrats in the Senate who are holding up passage of both bills because of concerns over the price tag, this despite the fact that Senator Sinema is one of the authors of the infrastructure bill. As a fellow Democrat, as a constituent of the senator, I'm just - I'm wondering what conversations you've had with her about this.

ROMERO: I've known Senator Sinema for many, many years, at least a decade or more. And she understands how important infrastructure, roads and bridges and investment for our airports are. We also need to make sure that she understands how important the human infrastructure pieces of the Build Back Better agenda are for Arizonans.

MARTIN: If you - if this bill does not pass, will you hold Senator Sinema responsible?

ROMERO: You know, I don't like to attach blame. What I want right now - I'm still hopeful. I am listening to what President Biden is saying, that he is hopeful that we will pass this bill. And I just - I believe as a - an elected official that has to work with other elected officials as mayor, I believe that it takes time to sit down and come to a conclusion that everyone feels comfortable with. And that's the only way to win, and that is the only path forward.

MARTIN: I'm trying to understand, though. You see, the dispute has been sort of framed in terms of, you know, the progressives think that - here's how it's being framed in Washington. The progressives think that this is what the country needs, so that's what they should fight for. The moderates are saying the price is too high. The progressives are getting frustrated because they're saying, OK, if the price tag is too high, what would you cut? And they say that the people who are holding out don't - you know, aren't putting forward enough of an argument for what they think is not necessary. So why are they holding out? I'm just trying to understand, like, how do you see it? Is that about right? Is the framing correct here, or are we missing something?

ROMERO: I believe that it is not either/or. I believe that as President Biden said, look, it's about sitting down and saying - what are our priorities, and what can we fund right now? And so if at the end of the day, both bills equal $4 trillion dollars or 3.5 or $5 trillion, it really doesn't matter. It's about the priorities that the president ran on, that Congress ran on and that the senators ran on.

I've known Senator Sinema long enough to know that she is incredibly smart and strategic and will understand that here in Arizona, she has a constituency that is absolutely supportive of her moving forward with investing in the human side of our infrastructure needs.

MARTIN: That was the mayor of Tucson, Ariz., Regina Romero. Madame Mayor, thank you so much for talking with us. I do hope we'll talk again.

ROMERO: Thank you so much. I really appreciate you having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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