Monday, May 27, 2024

Why America’s Infrastructure Is So Hard To Fix

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A robust investment in public infrastructure has too often been an American unicorn—desirable yet elusive. Even our vaunted highway system wallowed as an aspirational blueprint for a dozen years before President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.

The phrase “infrastructure week” became a running joke during the last administration as promises failed to result in legislation, year after year. When it comes to repairing our roads and bridges, upgrading our power and communications grids, and preparing for a changing future, we have simply failed to live up to the task.

The needs, to be sure, are vast. The toll on the nation’s roads is staggering—7,500 pedestrians were killed in 2022—demanding greater street and highway safety. One out of three bridges in the U.S. needs repair. Throughout the country, millions of Americans don’t have access to or can’t afford broadband internet service. In excess of 2 million people live without running water or basic plumbing. 

For too long, the American public has had to carry on while these deficiencies have gone unattended. The political will has been weak or inattentive, the rewards too far removed from electoral advantage. Policymakers have long bickered over how and how much to pay for infrastructure improvements.

The Fishing Wars Memorial Bridge, which has been closed indefinitely since October 2023 after the Federal Highway Administration raised safety concerns, is shown March 26, 2024, in Tacoma, Wash. Lindsey Wasson—AP

That’s all the more reason to applaud President Joe Biden and the 117th Congress for defying political inertia and passing not one or two, but three, pieces of legislation that clear a path to American renewal. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, American Rescue Plan, and Inflation Reduction Act dedicated more than $1.2 trillion in federal aid not only to rebuild roads, bridges, and rails, but to expand access to high-speed internet, safeguard drinking water, confront the climate crisis, and ensure underserved communities don’t continue to be overlooked. Thousands of municipalities—from the smallest towns to the largest cities—have an opportunity to realize their dreams, tackle their most urgent needs, and build their way to prosperity. Suddenly, America is on the cusp of strengthening itself from the Heartland out.

The administration has aimed significant amounts of the legislation’s money right at the nation’s local governments. That means mayors, among the most pragmatic and least partisan of our elected officials, are positioned to manage the implementation of much of this extraordinary investment. This has created a paradox: While small towns and cities have never before imagined being eligible for competitive dollars at these levels, winning hinges on the capacity of some of the most stretched civic institutions out there—those same municipalities.  That means that as welcome as this new federal funding is, many communities are simply unable to retrieve it.

Shortly after the President signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, our team at Bloomberg Philanthropies canvassed small towns across the country to hear directly from their leaders. In focus groups from Alexandria, La., to Greenville, Miss., to Santa Fe, N.M., to Scranton, Penn., local officials repeatedly said they didn’t believe these dollars could get to them. They worried putting precious time and energy into deciphering complex federal applications would yield nothing. With this insight, we galvanized a group of national organizations and subject-matter experts to form the Local Infrastructure Hub. This consortium has spent the last 18 months coaching 1,300-plus mostly small and mid-sized municipalities in how to navigate the intricacies of federal grants and secure for their residents a share of the largest national commitment to modernization in decades.

Here’s what we’re seeing: First, demand from America’s small cities is tremendous. Of the nearly 800 cities that have participated in our multi-week grant-writing bootcamps, three-fourths have populations with 50,000 or fewer residents, two-thirds have 25,000 or fewer, and two out of five have no more than 10,000. Second, these towns and cities have entrenched challenges; most have poverty rates exceeding national averages. Third, securing federal funding is foreign terrain. A majority have never before received funding from a competitive federal grant. Even fewer have internal teams or key, anchor partners to develop sophisticated plans and forge the relationships that will marshal a proposal or project to fruition. Yet that’s exactly what this moment is asking of our smaller urban, suburban, and rural communities.

With direct support, however, these jurisdictions are making it happen. Consider Clarkston, Ga., a city of 14,500 residents that is sometimes called “the most diverse square mile in America.” Mayor Beverly Burks, whose part-time role belies her non-stop commitment to the job, was determined to make the city safer for pedestrians and motorists, but had little experience or staff to track down the necessary federal funds. The Local Infrastructure Hub extended a hand. In December, the effort paid off: The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Clarkston $1 million to put together a comprehensive street safety plan.

Across the board, the program’s results have been just as promising. Through training with experts, peer sessions for local officials, and pro-bono bootcamps, the Local Infrastructure Hub has guided hundreds of successful applications:

  • Participating cities have drawn down more than $2 billion and are more than three times as likely to win federal grants than those that don’t participate.
  • The average award of the most recently announced Safe Street grant winners was $1.8 million for Local Infrastructure Hub bootcamp participants, compared to $1 million for non-participants nationally.
  • In the Reconnecting Communities awards out in March, bootcamp participants averaged grant sizes of $95 per resident, three times the $31 per resident for non-participating city winners.

Among the recipients we assisted was Montgomery, Ala. Its $36.6 million award benefits residents along the Selma-to-Montgomery Trail, who have been marginalized by segregation, redlining, and highway construction. “The impact has been as much psychological as anything else,” Mayor Steven Reed recently shared. “This is important for people who have been promised signs of progress. It shows their community did matter, and their history is not just being used for a photo opp.” Thankfully, with the commitment of our partners at the Ballmer Group, Emerson Collective, Ford Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, Waverley Street Foundation, The U.S. Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities, Results for America, Delivery Associates, and others, this work will continue.

Infrastructure America
The entrance to the Alabama riverfront in downtown Montgomery, Ala. on Aug. 8, 2023. Julie Bennett—Getty Images

But civil society can only do so much. The truth is, the federal government needs to be more thoughtful about the capacity challenges facing small cities. One agency that’s made advances is the U.S. Department of Transportation, which distinguishes itself by offering two kinds of grants: planning and implementation. Implementation awards are trending to larger municipalities, those that have devoted time and study to these issues. By introducing a planning grant, the Department has enabled everyone else to have a shot to advance, even without “shovel ready” projects at the outset. It’s a model that should become a permanent feature in the way all government agencies do business with America’s localities.

Agencies can’t stop there, though. Technical assistance, and, critically, support for local innovation, data, and project management muscle should be built into federal investments. A typical city chasing federal dollars faces a daunting job. Applicants first need to choose from a stack of more than 400 grants. They must develop project plans, assemble data, and develop financing strategies. They must engage civic groups, private sector stakeholders, and other elected officials to generate more ambitious proposals and forge durable coalitions that can drive a project to completion. The applications are time intensive and difficult. The smaller the town, the less likely it has a strategic planning unit, let alone a grant writer. We have met dozens of fire chiefs, city managers, mayors, even code enforcement officers, who work double time just to compete for an award.

It is time for the federal government to acknowledge that not all municipalities are equally positioned to dream big and effectively implement for their residents. This is especially true in places left behind, which will either catch up or fall further back in this era of federal investment. Strengthening municipal governments and their capacity to innovate, partner, and deliver should be a national, congressional priority. It’s the civic infrastructure on which our physical infrastructure will either be built or crumble.

The Biden Administration and the 117th Congress did something radical: Together, they decided to invest in the ideas and aspirations coming from Main Streets across America, rather than from inside the Beltway. Philanthropy and civil society stepped in to help municipalities succeed. The job is hardly finished, though. Future federal investments must ensure localities have the tools and resources to bring that money home, and to put it to effective use. Only then can we all move forward, together.

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