How Infrastructure Became Washington’s Latest Obsession

As unlikely as it may seem, ‘infrastructure’ has become one of the buzzwords of the day. One can hardly strike up a conversation about politics in Washington without the president’s promise of an infrastructure package coming up.

Mayors from cities of all sizes, with all different sorts of priorities, identify infrastructure as being of the utmost importance. City leaders recognize the essential nature of these services, and how critical they are to building and maintaining a strong, functional community and economy.

To that end, it’s no surprise that NLC’s 2017 analysis of State of the City addresses shows that 43 percent of the city leaders sampled devoted significant portions of their speeches to infrastructure issues. Additionally, infrastructure was among the top three issues consistently mentioned in mayors’ state of the city speeches over the last three years.

Top 5 infrastructure subtopics included in 2017 State of the City speeches.

This year, mayors were, predictably, most concerned about roads, with 48 percent of the infrastructure mentions focusing on this topic. Thirty-six percent of mayors mentioned public works. Bike and pedestrian infrastructure was very popular, with 32 percent and 30 percent of speeches mentioning those topics, respectively; 32 percent of mayors mentioned water infrastructure. None of this is surprising, as these all represent public assets with which people have direct, daily interactions.

NLC’s research consistently finds infrastructure, and specifically maintenance backlogs, among the top issues of concern for cities. Most of our nation’s cities are facing overwhelming infrastructure expenses, the majority of which are maintenance-related. Filling potholes and keeping water systems running safely and efficiently never stop being priorities for local elected officials.

Because infrastructure is typically owned or governed by cities, they tend to be the ones who get stuck with the responsibility of paying for it. The good news is that, as city finances continually improve, cities are in a stronger position to address those infrastructure needs.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed plans to both reduce the city’s infrastructure backlog and also start investing in better infrastructure assets for the city. “We will reduce by more than half our $900 million backlog of infrastructure projects, thanks to the people of Atlanta’s support through the TSPLOST vote in November and the Renew Atlanta bond program.” Reed also used his speech to announce the largest expansion of the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, or MARTA, since its inception in 1971.

Like Mayor Reed, many cities realize that they can no longer kick the can down the road as far as their infrastructure deficits are concerned, and they are doing the hard (and sometimes creative) work of finding new ways to pay for it. Many of those cities are turning to the taxpayers to ask for some help paying for infrastructure — and, largely, taxpayers are saying yes.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane of Raleigh, North Carolina, praised constituents for prioritizing infrastructure, and for being willing to pay for improved transit services. “I think we all heard that loud and clear in November when the Wake County Transit Referendum was passed. Thank you to all of you in the community that worked so hard for so many years to get us here,” she said. “We expect to start seeing those improved transit services in 2018.”

City leaders are also embracing the more difficult discussions around use and paying for improvements. In Scottsdale, Arizona, Mayor Jim Lane discussed the intricacies of funding and road use: “We as individuals may only use a few roads, or this neighborhood park, but as a community of 240,000 people and millions of visitors, our infrastructure gets used by lots and lots of people all the time.” These types of discussions are important precursors to introducing paid-use models like mileage-based user fees, especially in an era in which the pending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund along with the decreased funding from the federal level is putting more of the onus on state and local policymakers to find the cash for these projects. Resistance toward raising gas taxes or implementing tolls leaves paid-use models as one of the few remaining solutions for some communities.

It is clear from our recent State of the Cities analysis that city leaders understand the importance of infrastructure — and, finally, they have the critical combination of both financial stability and political will to begin addressing their maintenance backlogs.

Infrastructure is so important to our cities and the people who live in them. City officials from communities of all sizes recognize that infrastructure impacts the day-to-day functionality and well-being of everyone, that it is central to economic competitiveness, and that it serves as the major organism that brings critical public goods to the masses. Additionally, maintaining infrastructure has also become a national priority, and it is central to ensuring equity, prosperity and public health. Infrastructure is finally getting the attention it has so desperately deserved.

About the author: Nicole DuPuis is the principal associate for urban innovation in NLC’s Center for City Solutions and Applied Research. Follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicolemdupuis.