Mayors Say America’s Infrastructure Needs an Upgrade

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In addition to facing the deteriorating state of America’s existing infrastructure, city leaders are faced with the added complexity of investing in new, smarter infrastructure that can support and augment a 21st century economy.

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“There is something wrong with our infrastructure.” said Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, in his state of the city address. “We need to do something now.” (Getty Images)

The Challenge

The United States’ infrastructure is in deplorable condition. Several factors — including a significant decline in federal investment, less predictable funding from states, and the pending insolvency of the Highway Trust Fund — have contributed to this problem, putting more of the onus on state and local policymakers to find the cash for these projects in already challenging times. This has left the U.S. with what is commonly referred to as an “infrastructure deficit” or a significant gap between what we spend on infrastructure and what we need to spend to get our existing infrastructure up to par.

Figures on this growing price tag vary, but they are daunting any way you slice them. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives America’s infrastructure a D+, and estimates that approximately 3.6 trillion dollars would need to be invested by 2020 in order to get the nation’s infrastructure to a good place.

Cities Take Responsibility for Providing the Essentials and Investing in the Future

There is no denying that infrastructure is important. We need roads and bridges to move people and goods. We need water to survive. We need internet access to function in the 21st century economy.  City leaders recognize the essential nature of these services, and how critical they are to building and maintaining a strong, functional community.

To that end, it’s no surprise that NLC’s analysis of state of the city addresses showed that almost half (48 percent) of the leaders sampled mentioned infrastructure priorities. Additionally, infrastructure is among the top five issues consistently mentioned in mayors’ state of the city speeches. City leaders addressed a wide array of types of infrastructure – 45 percent of the speeches in our sample addressed roads, 32 percent addressed bicycle infrastructure 23 percent addressed sewers or wastewater infrastructure, 22 percent addressed internet and broadband infrastructure, and 18 percent addressed buses.

While transportation infrastructure is still at the top of city officials’ minds, this data suggests that policymakers are beginning to pay more attention to other important types of infrastructure, such as internet connectivity and water and sewers.

Mayor Michael Brown of Grand Forks, North Dakota, underscored the importance of generating revenue for both new projects and maintenance of existing infrastructure alike, asserting that the community “must focus on maintenance and future investment now so we perpetuate a strong economy.” In order to generate local funding, and retain local control, the city administration will facilitate a community conversation about a new infrastructure sales tax.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego also expressed a desire to see more of the city’s tax dollars go toward community improvements, encouraging support of a ballot measure so that “voters can guarantee funds for neighborhood infrastructure decades into the future.”

Mayors of two different cities in Indiana, Greenwood and Nappanee, revered the successes of their Tax-Increment Finance (TIF) districts. Mayor Mark Myers of Greenwood highlighted the road improvements and job creation made possible by two different TIF districts in his community. Mayor Larry Thompson of Nappanee lauded the long term economic benefits enabled by the city’s TIF, explaining that the “community’s consolidated Tax Increment Finance (TIF) areas provide an added revenue source that allows additional funding for infrastructure and improvements that contribute to more economic-growth-added amenities.”

Infrastructure of the Future

In addition to facing the deteriorating state of America’s existing infrastructure, city leaders are faced with the added complexity of investing in new, smarter infrastructure that can support and augment a 21st century economy.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake acknowledged this, asserting that “a robust broadband infrastructure is absolutely vital to our city’s future.” She proposed that “creating such a network is the great infrastructure challenge of the 21st century.”

Many other city leaders across the nation agree with this sentiment, and have broadened to scope of the infrastructure discussion beyond transportation and water, to include broadband internet service. Mayor Will Sessoms of Virginia Beach, Virginia, highlighted the economic implications associated with broadband access:

“Connectivity is more than meeting our growing regional transportation needs. It’s ensuring our excellent public schools and institutions of higher learning provide educational pathways into high-demand careers. It’s ensuring that growing industries bring jobs and services to Virginia Beach. It’s ensuring the broadband capacity that our businesses need for global commerce and 21st century job growth.”

City leaders in Lexington, Kentucky, are also focused on economic competitiveness, recognizing that an important step to branding Lexington a 21st century city and encouraging economic prosperity is becoming a gigabit city. Mayor Lioneld Jordan of Fayetteville, Arkansas, announced the initiation of a Broadband Strategic Plan, and reinforced the importance of digital inclusion and access to online learning and job banks for all the city’s residents.

In addition to keeping up with the needs of older “hard” infrastructure, local leaders are recognizing the importance of 21st century “smart” infrastructure and taking the initiative to make sure that their communities remain competitive.

Infrastructure Matters

While it often struggles to rank among more exciting political issues, it is clear from our State of the Cities 2016 analysis that city leaders understand the importance of infrastructure. It moves us from place to place, gives us access to information, carries goods, and ensures that we have access to water. It keeps our cities running efficiently, ensures their competitiveness in the global market and enables them to attract new talent and businesses.

This post is part of a series expanding on NLC’s 2016 State of the Cities report. Check back next week as we delve deeper into what mayors had to say about health care.

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.