The start of 2019 welcomed the 116th Congress to our nation’s capital and brought a renewed opportunity to make meaningful legislative gains on behalf of American communities and residents. Unfortunately, the federal government shutdown has dominated the policy conversations in Washington and caused a ripple of consequences across the country. The National League of Cities (NLC) urges Congress to reach a bipartisan deal to reopen the government, not only to provide relief and stability to our nation’s cities, towns and villages, but also to re-focus federal efforts on the important legislative priorities that impact our communities. In 2018, NLC laid the groundwork to bring Congress’ attention to one of the largest domestic challenges facing the nation – rebuilding America’s infrastructure.
Throughout 2018, city leaders went to their members of Congress to ask them to Rebuild with Us. We are on the front lines when it comes to infrastructure as we deal with the daily breaks and patches needed to keep critical infrastructure up and running. Cities know that rebuilding and reimagining our nation’s infrastructure will take all levels of government working in partnership. The good news is Congressional leaders have each indicated that there is a window in 2019 to achieve a bipartisan infrastructure package. It will take support from all groups – from Senate Republicans to House Democrats to the President. However, with a push early this year, cities could leverage the preparation and advocacy of 2018 to see a comprehensive infrastructure package that could solve our nation’s challenges around water, transportation and broadband infrastructure, workforce development, and resilience.
2018 Groundwork and Victories
Early in 2018, conversations around infrastructure investment ramped up with a New Year’s press conference at Camp David with the president and congressional leaders, followed by the administration’s infrastructure proposal and a July release of a proposal by Representative Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), outgoing Chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Despite the growing momentum, an independent, holistic infrastructure package could not move forward until Fiscal Year 2019 funding was secured. However, victories were still made last year on behalf of America’s cities, towns and villages, including:
- America’s Water Infrastructure Act, which addressed wastewater and drinking water infrastructure and supported workforce development, as well as major projects related to navigation, flood control and ecosystem restoration under the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
- Reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which brought certainty to city airport improvements and essential air service for small cities, boosted technical education programs that cities can leverage and supported disaster recovery efforts.
- The Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus Appropriations bill, which included the Brownfields Reauthorization, a critical program to redevelop the more than 400,000 brownfield sites in our nation’s communities, along with a new rural broadband infrastructure pilot program.
- The reauthorization of the Perkins Act, which supports infrastructure jobs through dedicated funding to career and technical education.
- Passage of the Agriculture Improvement Act (also known as the Farm Bill), which includes important programs that support broadband, water infrastructure and workforce development in rural communities.
Cities Moved Infrastructure Conversations Forward
These wins are the result of city leaders raising awareness and engaging with their members of Congress. Here is a brief rundown of the actions taken in 2018:
- Thousands of city officials visited Washington, DC, for the Congressional Cities Conference, for Infrastructure Week in May and again in the fall to meet with agency heads and bring a city-perspective directly to lawmakers’ efforts.
- City leaders like NLC President Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana, 2018 Human Development Committee Chair Gil Ziffer, commissioner for Tallahassee, Florida, and 2018 EENR Committee Chair Cynthia Pratt, deputy mayor for Lacey, Washington, penned opinion editorials to elevate city infrastructure stories in the national media.
- NLC leaders testified twice before key legislative committees in Congress on the issues of transportation and broadband.
- Outside Washington, NLC, with the help of our partners, organized a national billboard campaign to shine a spotlight on the need for roadway fixes and sweeping infrastructure restoration. These digital billboards sprung up along streets from Massachusetts to California to engage with daily commuters.
- NLC hosted educational briefings for Congressional staff throughout the year on missing infrastructure funding tools for cities, intergovernmental infrastructure coordination, the need for a strong workforce to rebuild infrastructure, as well as resilient and green infrastructure.
Throughout 2018, NLC elevated the stories of cities to inform the national dialogue.
- In San Francisco, the Sewer System Improvement Program, a 20-year, multi-billion dollar upgrade of San Francisco’s aging wastewater infrastructure, will provide a range of job opportunities, including entry-level positions for community members to access careers in the construction trades. These jobs provide family-sustaining wages and benefits. With 40-60 percent of their workforce expected to retire by 2027, as well as the need to grow their workforce, San Francisco is keenly aware of the need to invest in the workforce pipeline to ensure that residents are recruited and trained to fill critical positions that support the basic fabric of the community.
- Atlanta faces stern challenges with aging infrastructure. The city’s original water supply pipelines are still in service, dating back to 1893, 1908 and 1924. This water infrastructure system forms the foundation and starting point for delivering clean and reliable drinking water and fire protection services throughout the city and region. Currently, Atlanta is undertaking a multi-year, multi-million-dollar effort to upgrade this aging pipe system, while expanding the city’s water supply and creating the city’s largest public park, by transforming the abandoned Bellwood granite quarry into a reservoir.
- The city of San Leandro, California has tackled the digital divide by expanding its free public Wi-Fi service to Marina Park, one of the city’s largest public parks. San Leandro is set to launch free Wi-Fi in at least six other city parks throughout the community. This expansion is the latest step in the city’s Fiber Optic Master Plan for broadband infrastructure. For several years, the city has worked through a local public-private partnership to operate and expand fiber in various parts of the community. This infrastructure investment has served as a catalyst for the growth and expansion of advanced manufacturing in the city, with over 350 local businesses now getting gigabit high-speed Internet service through the Lit San Leandro fiber loop.
Get Ready to Work with Congress in 2019
The 116th Congress represents a reset moment on infrastructure. An energetic and broad class of new Members will take their seats, and with active committee leadership turnover in both the House and Senate, new players will be ready to start strong. Congress and the administration have already openly expressed interest in a large-scale bipartisan infrastructure push in 2019, including the announcement from Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the new leader of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, that he will introduce an infrastructure package early in 2019 to kickstart the conversation.
This January, we encourage city leaders to make three commitments:
- Connect directly with your members of Congress to ensure they know that cities want to work with federal leaders on an infrastructure package.
- Stay up to date on how your representatives are prioritizing infrastructure, including signing up for their newsletters and following them on social media.
- Make your plans to join thousands of city leaders in Washington and meet with your members of Congress and their staff in person during the Congressional City Conference, March 10-13.
As city leaders, we hope you will join NLC as we share stories with Congress, showcase the reality of infrastructure in communities across America and push Congress for a bipartisan bill to start rebuilding with us in 2019. Let’s get this done.
- Rebuild with Us: Take Action
- Infrastructure Updates on CitiesSpeak
- Congressional City Conference 2019
About the author: Irma Esparza Diggs is a senior executive and director of federal advocacy at the National League of Cities. Follow Irma on Twitter @iediggs.