One Mayor’s Take: Why America Needs a New Agenda for Cities

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Increased investment in infrastructure could have an enormous positive economic impact and create more vibrant, thriving cities – but federal leaders need to make the commitment.

Downtown Kansas City, Missouri. (Getty Images)
Downtown Kansas City, Missouri. (Getty Images)

This is a guest post by Kansas City, Missouri, Mayor Sly James. The post was originally published here, and has been reprinted with permission.

We all know the stories of crumbling roads, failing bridges and broadband access that lags behind our international peers. The last few decades have been hard on our urban centers, but Americans are falling in love with cities again. Cities all over the country are experiencing major influxes of new residents.

In fact, today, over 63 percent of the nation’s population lives in a city. That number is even higher – 70 percent – in the Midwest, where the city I lead is located. Despite this, an agenda to revitalize and restore the infrastructure of our cities has been shockingly absent from our presidential political discourse. That is, until recently.

The Democratic Party, in its Cities Agenda amendment to the 2016 platform, is now the first political party to develop a comprehensive plan on city infrastructure during this election cycle. And this week, the Republican party also made cities an issue in their campaign. Donald Trump entered the conversation with a speech in Detroit outlining an ambitious infrastructure agenda, declaring “We will build the next generation of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, seaports and airports that our country deserves.” We look forward to seeing the details of his plan.

Indeed, public transportation, roadways, highways, bridges, electricity, and waterways are at the very core of the services our citizens need to thrive. Our infrastructure is the skeleton that supports cities and improving it lifts up local economies. It’s a major factor in where people decide to work and businesses decide to locate. From the creation of bike paths to making safe water accessible to all, infrastructure impacts public health and quality of life outcomes.

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) releases an infrastructure report card every four years. The last one, published in 2013, was grim. ASCE gave the nation a cumulative grade of D+ on its infrastructure – and that was slightly higher than the results of the previous report. But another ASCE report detailed the enormous positive economic impact that is possible through an increased investment in infrastructure.

In “Failure to Act: The Impact of Current Infrastructure Investment on America’s Economic Future,” released in 2012, ASCE found that investing $157 billion in infrastructure each year until 2020 could protect 3.5 million jobs, $2.4 trillion in consumer spending, and $3.1 trillion in GDP. $94 billion in transportation investments alone would protect 877,000 jobs.  We clearly cannot afford the status quo.

Mayors are doing everything we can to maintain the integrity of these foundational services. Some have implemented innovative public-private partnerships to partially fill the resource gap the federal government’s inaction has left. But too many of us are forced to navigate a patchwork of state laws that limit our ability to allocate the resources necessary to modernize local infrastructure.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a devastating example of what can happen when local leaders are not fully empowered to maintain the infrastructure in their cities and towns. That’s why I could not agree more with the Cities Agenda’s basic premise that “local leaders are best equipped to create a better future for their residents — but need the resources and flexibility to get the job done.”

The Cities Agenda recognizes that local economic progress can only be achieved by addressing multiple, seemingly intractable, issues simultaneously. It calls for increased investment in housing and schools, jobs, transportation and health in cities across the nation. Specifically, it will build on game-changing programs like the Neighborhood Stabilization Program and the Hardest Hit Fund, which have revitalized communities overcome by blight.

The Cities Agenda also promises to foster community vibrancy by expanding programs that leverage private sector investment to combat poverty, such as the New Markets Tax Credit and the State Small Business Credit Initiative. These programs are critical to the health and stability of our nation. The benefits are enormous and exponential.

As the president of the African American Mayors Association, which represents the over 500 black mayors in the country, I can tell you that mayors are driving this critical conversation on investments in infrastructure. Mayors have seen, first hand, the impact of federal underinvestment in cities and infrastructure for too long.

Although the Cities Agenda was initially adopted by the Democrats, there is no reason that this should be a partisan issue. Republicans entering this dialogue is good for advancing the conversation on infrastructure investment. Business leaders need to weigh in just as much as labor and community members. All of us sit in the same ditch when something breaks and repairs need to made.

Regardless of who wins the White House, or the majorities in Congress this November, we must increase the pressure on our federal leaders to fix our cities.

About the Author: Sly James is the 56th mayor of Kansas City, Missouri.