How to Rebuild America’s Infrastructure
This week at the 2018 Congressional City Conference, NLC President Mark Stodola delivered an address on America’s infrastructure needs and NLC’s #RebuildWithUs campaign for city leaders. That speech is reprinted here with minor edits.
Good morning. I want to thank all of you for taking time out of your busy schedules to travel to Washington, D.C.
I am acutely aware of the meetings and events and news of the day that you’re missing at home. But by being here in the nation’s capital this week, you’ve made a commitment to learn, to advocate, and to become a better leader for your community.
Now, I want you to take a moment to look around. You’re surrounded by the leaders of cities and towns from every corner of the country — from all 50 states — and when we come together, we learn that even though we have different backgrounds, different regional accents, and different industries and cultural assets that make our communities unique, our priorities are aligned.
We all want safer, stronger, more economically vibrant communities. We want better transportation systems, access to clean drinking water and better broadband connectivity. We want safe schools — we demand safe schools — safe parks and safe community spaces. We want good, reliable jobs for our residents and we want to create an environment that spurs innovation and entrepreneurship.
There is much more that connects us than divides us.
Our voices, our priorities, and our charge to the federal government are stronger when we are together — just like the NLC motto says. This week, we will tell Congress and the administration why working in partnership with local leaders is the only way to move America forward.
Our top advocacy priority is something that impacts every single one of our communities: Infrastructure. That’s why the National League of Cities is elevating the issue in a big way through our national campaign — #RebuildWithUs.
We cannot wait any longer. In many places, our nation’s infrastructure is structurally deficient or nearing the end of its useful lifespan, and state and local governments cannot address the challenge alone — paying for infrastructure must be a joint responsibility.
President Trump has given Congress a proposal on infrastructure, and now it is up to us to demand they expand that proposal into a bigger infrastructure package that works for cities.
We all know very well that nothing is more essential to a city than providing reliable infrastructure. What does that mean?
- Reliable roads and transit systems that allow our residents to safely get to work and to school.
- Reliable water and sewer systems so that our citizens don’t have to wonder if it’s safe to drink water from the tap.
- Reliable, fast broadband that connects ALL neighborhoods so that students young, and those not-so-young, can learn new skills, and entrepreneurs can grow their businesses in a changing economy.
- And, most importantly, we need a reliable, skilled workforce that can build, maintain, and, ultimately, benefit from our nation’s infrastructure.
We, as city leaders, are already doing all that we can to address these needs. In fact, more than three-quarters of all transportation projects and 95 percent of all water infrastructure projects are paid for already locally by cities and states.
In Little Rock, I have about $2 billion worth of infrastructure needs. Of the $2 billion, $1 billion of it is made up of street and drainage projects. To meet those needs we’ve passed a local sales tax, we’ve reissued municipal bonds, we’ve passed a dedicated millage, we’ve authorized tourism taxes, and we’ve developed improvement district assessments — and yet, this is not enough. And that’s the case in most cities across the country.
As a country, we face a $2 trillion 10-year investment gap, and we need Congress to join cities and invest in America’s infrastructure. Unfortunately, in every community in the country, you can find evidence of this massive funding gap.
You can see it in our congested ports, our potholed roads, and our struggling transit systems. You can see it in our rusting pipes, frequent water main breaks and sewer system overflows. And you can see it in the homes of many low-income families that have no internet access.
Many of you have experienced the tragedies that result from infrastructure needs left unattended too long. From deadly bridge collapses, to health crises brought on by unsafe drinking water, to disparities that are intensified by the fact that nearly 78 million Americans don’t have access to — or can’t afford — broadband internet service, which is vital to our 21st Century education system.
Our infrastructure problems are upon us, they’re not going away — they are unavoidable.
At the same time, we’ve got new technology coming online like smart city applications, drones and driverless cars, and we cities have to start getting ready to stay competitive in our global economy.
That’s why the National League of Cities is calling on Congress to get to work now to rebuild America’s infrastructure, and to do it with us. The good news, at least, is that fixing America’s infrastructure is a shared priority of Congress, the Administration, cities, and the business community.
That is why our voices and our stories on this issue have never been more important.
Now is the time to tell Washington we need sustained infrastructure investment that will work for local communities — and we need to work together to build a strong coalition if we’re going to be successful.
But my charge to you is to build your infrastructure coalition back at home — with your chambers of commerce, your major employers, realtors, universities, workforce boards and state legislators — and then to tell your members of Congress with all of those stakeholders sitting right there at the table.
Your leadership on infrastructure at home, and our unified message as the National League of Cities, is the only chance we have at ensuring Congress gets the federal infrastructure package right.
A critical component of any infrastructure plan is that it considers and invests in our current and future workforce.
We need contractors and construction workers and mechanics ready to rebuild bridges and construct new ones. We need scientists and engineers and architects that will reimagine our water infrastructure. We need electricians and technologists to expand broadband connectivity.
But it’s also much more than just the jobs that will be immediately available. We have a real chance with this infrastructure package to improve the quality of our workforce — and to prepare for all of the new opportunities that will result from our increasingly technology-infused, global workplace.
To even have a chance at rebuilding America’s infrastructure, and to create safer and more prosperous communities for the global stage, we MUST prepare our workforce for the rapidly changing world.
For me, the future of work spills into three buckets:
- There’s the technology advancements, automation and artificial intelligence that you read about in the headlines — the: “robots will take — or at least change — our jobs” narrative, if you will;
- The second, concerns education and career and technical training and retraining that will build the skills our communities and employers demand;
- And the third represents the biggest missed opportunities and often contributes to the largest challenges in our communities — are the millions of what we call “opportunity youth” that are not in the workforce or enrolled in school, coupled with the adults who need to be reengaged in school, reconnected to the workforce, and given a chance to advance beyond low-wage jobs that can’t cover the rent or put enough food on the table.
As city leaders, we need to be asking the right questions and bringing the right people together to address these three critical elements of the future of work.
Last month, NLC partnered with Tech4America to bring together the first of many convenings of city leaders and the technology industry. The event was a forum for honest, off-the-record policy discussions in Silicon Valley.
Now, we got to do some pretty cool things like take a ride in an Autonomous Vehicle and see a demo of new data platforms for cities.
But the most impactful thing for me was our focus and discussions around the future of work. Something that really struck me in our conversations with companies like Thumbtack and LinkedIn and Google X, is that the competitive advantage that all of us have — the opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurism — are often right in our backyard.
Each of us needs to look inwardly at the natural strengths of our cities, create an asset map, and then, think outside the box on how to support and grow those assets.
I’ll bet that most of you have a lot of things that make your community unique — and it might not be the first thing that comes to mind.
In Little Rock, we looked at our strengths, and we have a company called FIS. They are the number one company that provides financial technology solutions to banks around the world. So fintech is a really important industry for us. We’ve done two fintech accelerators that capitalized on our access to the FIS leadership and our brand new Technology Park. We have had over 300 startups apply and several of them have chosen to relocate to Little Rock because of it.
So, I’ve been thinking, what else can we do in Little Rock to spur innovation?
For me, we’ve got a wonderful medical corridor and eight hospitals, so obviously the health care industry is something important that we ought to explore. Our number one export in Arkansas is aviation and aviation-related products, so there must be opportunities there. And we’re also located right in the middle of America with road, rail, runway and river, so we should be looking at the whole supply chain and logistics issue from an economic development stand point.
But it’s not just medium-sized cities like Little Rock or large cities like San Francisco and New York that have strengths to build on. Every one of your communities has something that makes it different from the town 10 miles or 200 miles away.
So, ask yourself: what makes your city unique? What industry can you develop? What are the things that can’t just be automated away, things that could benefit from technology and startups and new ideas?
Get that napkin out — create the next Google, Amazon, the next FIS.
Of course, there’s much more to the future of work than just technology and startups and robots. We’ve got to work with our federal, state and local partners to expand access to education, particularly early childhood education, and career and technical training at the high school and post-secondary levels — many of you are already doing this.
We need to ask the tough questions like — does a college degree get you what it used to? How do we create and support apprenticeships and alternative pathways to higher-wage jobs that don’t require a college degree in fields such as construction and plumbing and electrical work? How do we support entrepreneurs in high tech AND low tech fields like food service and hospitality and entertainment? How do we ensure that our children get a quality education, no matter their zip code or their families’ income?
The National League of Cities is doing a lot through research and through technical assistance with national foundations and our community partners to answer these questions. I encourage you to reach out to your regional NLC membership representative, who will serve as your connector for these opportunities.
There’s a lot more that all of us can be doing at home, and the National League of Cities will help you do that, too. We need to convene conversations, bring together stakeholders like employers, workforce boards, and chambers of commerce. We need to collect data and take a closer look at the types of skills that employers and our residents are demanding.
And we need to make sure that our policies and practices ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate in the economy and find meaningful work.
Many cities are advancing policies like expungement of records for non-violent crimes and “ban the box” initiatives to help empower people leaving the penitentiary system. Other cities are exploring portable benefits as a means to respond to the growing non-W2 workforce.
In Little Rock, we’re working on reducing our recidivism rate as a way to reduce our prison population and, most importantly, reduce crime rates. But the even more critical question we need to be asking — and that is, how do we prevent people from heading on a path that could end behind bars?
What we need are better role models and mentoring programs, we need to inspire kids from a young age, we need to show them the opportunities that await them, and we need to create an accessible path for them to take advantage of all those opportunities.
I challenge you to go back to your cities and start these conversations, too — bring together community partners, educators, neighborhood activists, and state allies. And don’t forget about our public health experts, as well!
To all of you, thank you, again, for being here in Washington this week. Let’s move America forward and tell Congress to Rebuild With Us!
About the author: Mark Stodola is the Mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and the president of National League of Cities.