This week, the nation is recognizing Infrastructure Week. There will be events, discussions and advocacy actions across the country. But for cities, towns and villages, every week is infrastructure week. When our residents hit a pothole on the way to work or their houses get flooded by a water pipe break – we are the ones who get the call and rush to action. These calls are far more frequent than they should be, though.
As our nation’s infrastructure ages, it becomes less reliable and, in some cases, less safe. Our residents and businesses feel the pinch when it takes more time to get to appointments and run errands. When the internet goes down or gets spotty, our businesses and our classrooms lose out on productive time. With every water line break or flooding disaster, the damage diverts critical dollars from residents and local governments.
Local leaders are stepping up and doing more than ever to address our infrastructure challenges, but our budgets are stretched far too thin for the rebuilding we need to do as a country. That’s why it’s great to hear Congress and the President have heard our call and agreed to come back to the negotiation table for a $2 trillion infrastructure package this year.
So, what would an influx of federal infrastructure dollars mean at the local level?
First, they would go a long way to close the funding gap and speed up stalled projects. For example, in my city of Gary, IN, we could accelerate our commuter rail project, allowing us to reduce the amount of time required to travel between Gary and Chicago, and create transformative transit-oriented development at train stops. It would also provide a “shot in the arm” for the development of a multimodal site at Buffington Harbor. Every city, town and village has a project like this that will help our infrastructure work better locally and nationally.
Second, federal dollars would allow local leaders to strengthen our infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events and make our communities more resilient. Climate change is here, and it has devastating health and economic impacts on a community. In recent years, the United States has experienced historic weather and climate disasters. In 2018, for instance, 14 separate billion-dollar plus disasters had a cumulative cost exceeding $90 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and hurricanes have all brought renewed attention to the need for local communities to anticipate, prepare for and adapt to these events. Looking at flood mitigation alone, every $1 invested saves $6 in disaster recovery. Investing in pre-disaster mitigation won’t only save taxpayer dollars, it will also save lives.
And finally, a serious federal investment would provide us with an opportunity to close the digital divide in America. Too many neighborhoods still lack any broadband connection at all – or are reliant on a single provider’s aging copper wires. With federal support and sufficient local control, community leaders are in a position to identify the homes and businesses that still can’t get online and build the communications infrastructure to connect them. While communications providers are already working with federal subsidies to expand broadband’s reach into rural areas, many communities are ready to build their own fiber, or work with partners to create a blend of public and private broadband infrastructure. This is critical to reducing the digital divide and improving economic mobility.
Infrastructure Week ends on May 20. But on May 21, we cannot just go back to business as usual. We have to keep the pressure on until we see a federal investment package that reimagines and funds our infrastructure in partnership with cities, towns and villages. I encourage every local leader to connect with their members of Congress to ensure they know that we want to work with together on an infrastructure package.
Together, we can lead the movement to rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. Until we see a bill, let’s remind Congress – every week is Infrastructure Week back home!
About the author: Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is the mayor of Gary, Indiana, and the president of the National League of Cities (NLC), the nation’s largest organization representing cities and their leaders. As president of NLC, Freeman-Wilson is leading the organization to focus on four priority areas: helping city leaders tackle the housing crisis; uplifting legacy cities; creating communities for all generations; and, encouraging civic engagement. Through these four pillars of work and a national campaign, Freeman-Wilson and NLC will engage city leaders to create a more meaningful bond between communities and their residents. Freeman-Wilson also leads the organization’s advocacy efforts, focused on the critical issues of infrastructure, public safety and economic development.