The truth is simple: America needs investment in infrastructure. Local governments face challenges around water, transportation and broadband infrastructure, as well as workforce development — and the result impacts our economy significantly.
Last week, NLC hosted a congressional briefing to highlight our guiding principles for infrastructure investment. Local leaders traveled to the U.S. Capitol to call on Congress to work with cities to pass a bipartisan infrastructure bill that addresses those challenges, and supports the innovative solutions that local leaders are investing in to build better communities.
“Cities are already doing all that they can to address our greatest infrastructure needs — but band aids and quick fixes aren’t cutting it anymore. We need to work together to make a real difference,” said Clarence E. Anthony, NLC CEO and executive director. “The National League of Cities is committed to moving the needle on this issue that impacts every city, town and village across the country.”
Panelists included LaWana Mayfield, Councilmember of Charlotte, North Carolina, James McDonald, Councilmember of Pinecrest, Florida, Ana Sandoval, Councilmember of San Antonio, Michael Sesma, Councilmember of Gaithersburg, Maryland, and Mike Lynch, Director, Broadband and Cable, City of Boston and President of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors.
The first panel focused on transportation, water and workforce development. Councilmembers Mayfield, McDonald and Sandoval spoke about how population growth in their cities and regions is sparking the need to rethink how they develop transportation corridors and alternatives that not only will accommodate more people, but also considers equity in presenting opportunities for low-income and minority neighborhoods. The goal is to develop and fund projects that will alleviate traffic congestion, promote small businesses and create new job and workforce opportunities.
Charlotte, North Carolina
In Charlotte, due to a construction boom and high population growth, the city is thinking strategically about a workforce development pipeline for the skilled trades. Through a community partnership, the city is investing in Project P.I.E.C.E, which addresses labor market shortages in the construction trades.
This includes access to intense career coaching, training and wrap-around services to ensure that those with multiple barriers to employment can succeed in this growing sector. The program is also partnering with high schools to create career pathways in the architecture, construction and engineering fields.
For Charlotte, the federal government could be a stronger partner by increasing investments in education and job training programs that help to bridge the skills gap such as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, Perkins and PELL. Without these investments, cities such as Charlotte will face an uphill battle in preparing for the job demands of today and the future that allow for critical infrastructure projects such as their light rail expansion.
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Miami-Dade County, Florida
In Miami-Dade County, local leaders in cities like Pinecrest are thinking strategically about their growth and how to improve local transit. Their SMART plan is considering bus rapid transit and other options for the South Dade transitway. The SMART plan advances six rapid transit corridors, which is critical to the addressing congestion issues faced by all cities in the region, including Pinecrest.
However, the plan will need strong funding commitments from all partners including the federal government. Federal funds for transit often serve as “anchor” capital to leverage state and local commitments, which is why the Federal Transit Administration New Starts and TIGER funding is important to cities large and small across the country.
San Antonio, Texas
The City of San Antonio faces its own set of challenges as the city continues to grow and attract new business. With an additional 1 million residents expected to arrive by 2040, the city is undergoing a three-pronged planning effort to guide the city toward smart, sustainable growth. SA Tomorrow consists of a comprehensive plan, a sustainability plan and a multimodal transportation plan.
Situated in a floodplain known as “flash flood alley,” San Antonio has been moving forward with creative solutions to address its street, sidewalk and drainage improvements, which are critical to ensuring equity and access to all communities within the city. In May 2017, voters approved an $850 million bond, the largest municipal bond in the city’s history. Of that, $445 million will be dedicated for street improvements, $48 million for pedestrian mobility projects, and $139 million for drainage projects, as well funds from the city’s general revenues. Every San Antonian lives or works within one mile of a bond project. These projects will ensure that the city is prepared for the growth and demands of the future.
The day’s second panel focused on preemption of local authority and the financial barriers that cities face to funding and financing infrastructure. During this panel, Councilmember Sesma and Mr. Lynch shared their cities’ desire to work as partners with the federal government to ensure that high-quality, affordable broadband is available to all residents and businesses.
The City of Boston has focused on addressing the “three-legged stool” of broadband: access, affordability and adoption. As wireless providers densify their downtown networks in anticipation of the launch of 5G technology, Boston has worked to balance the business needs of those providers with the needs of residents and the city to appropriately manage the rights-of-way.
New broadband infrastructure is largely built by the private sector, but is being deployed on public property, and local governments must preserve their ability to collect appropriate rent for use of that property, and exercise decision-making authority over the nature and location of that infrastructure.
Over the past two years, Boston has refined its process of working with wireless providers, and reduced its average processing time for an application to locate a new small cell site down to just two weeks. However, cities in many states are preempted from charging fair rents for their properties or exercising certain authorities, and the FCC and Congress are considering proposals that would increase that preemption throughout the nation.
Boston is also focused on addressing affordability and adoption challenges. The city has a large immigrant population, and has launched a Tech Goes Home program to ensure that city residents from all socioeconomic levels and backgrounds have the tools and basic technical skills to participate in a modern economy. As speaker Mike Lynch noted, broadband is a vital service, but it is a component of household budgets that did not exist 15 years ago, and can be a substantial expense. That is why the city advocates for maintained and strengthened federal support for important broadband subsidy programs such as Lifeline and E-Rate, which help get broadband to low-income households and community anchor institutions such as schools and libraries.
The City of Gaithersburg, situated in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area, has also focused on the challenge of increasing broadband adoption in all communities. While many residents in the community have access to high-speed broadband and subscribe at home, other residents do not see the value in either having a home connection or in supporting more wireless broadband infrastructure development within their communities.
Gaithersburg has conducted usage studies of how residents get online, and to what extent they use mobile versus wired or fixed wireless in-home connections, to conduct daily activities. The city found that many residents do not use their mobile devices on home wi-fi networks when they come home, increasing the demands on mobile networks and the need for network infrastructure densification.
Councilmember Mike Sesma noted that this presents an opportunity for wireless providers to educate consumers about their data usage and leveraging home wi-fi connections, and to come up with less-obtrusive infrastructure designs that blend into residential communities as mobile data usage increases. He also noted that more action is needed by the federal government on the issue of radiofrequency (RF) emissions safety.
Current RF emissions safety standards are very old, and were developed when equipment was placed high on large cell towers. Now that residents are faced with more small cell deployment close to street level or homes, they are concerned about the safety of this equipment, and cities are not allowed to consider those concerns when making planning decisions about wireless facilities deployment. Federal inaction on this issue has exacerbated challenges in quickly deploying small cell networks.
These stories, along with so many others from across the country are critically important for Congressional leaders in Washington to hear and understand. Join us for the NLC Congressional City Conference in Washington, DC March 11-14 to share your city’s story, speak up for city priorities, and rebuild America’s infrastructure. Learn more at www.ccc.nlc.org/infrastructure.
About the author: Carolyn Berndt is the program director for infrastructure and sustainability on the NLC Federal Advocacy team. She leads NLC’s advocacy, regulatory and policy efforts on energy and environmental issues, including water infrastructure and financing, air and water quality, climate change and energy efficiency. Follow Carolyn on Twitter at @BerndtCarolyn.