Biden’s infrastructure plan needs input from cities and regions

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Welcome to America in 2021. 

Hospitals are overwhelmed and health officials recognize the need for decentralized, smaller facilities in underserved neighborhoods.

In Texas, millions of people suffered through darkness and cold for days, without drinking water, after massive power outages crippled the state. 

School officials park school buses with wi-fi equipment in large parking lots so that students who don’t have broadband at home can download their assignments. 

Public transit agencies, vital to the low-wage, essential workers who have been the backbone of our economy during the pandemic, struggle to survive and provide a safe environment for riders.

Coastal cities such as Miami, Houston and New York are drawing up plans for walls, gates and pumps to protect against rising sea levels and more violent storms.

Renewable energy providers are struggling to finance the transformation of electric generation programs away from fossil fuels.

The list goes on and on. Some of these disruptions are mere inconveniences. Others are matters of life and death. Some are the direct result of the coronavirus pandemic and the inequities it has revealed. Others are caused by deep divisions in our society and inattention to major issues such as climate change. 

All make it clear that the time for action is now.

For the pressing challenges before our nation — recovery from the pandemic, racial inequity and economic mobility, regional dispersal of opportunity, economic competitiveness, digital equity and climate change — infrastructure is at least part of the means to addressing each one.

There is no silver bullet, but for all these issues, it is part of the answer. 

There’s no question the Biden administration will pursue a major infrastructure plan. But too often in the past, U.S. infrastructure policy has taken a top-down approach, with the federal government dictating what will be built, much of it based on inside-the-Beltway lobbying. 

We need a way to map out a new national infrastructure strategy.

Cities and regions are the true engines of American prosperity, producing most of the economic output and jobs. The pandemic has seared an indelible awareness of infrastructure priorities on local officials. To meet the challenges listed above, a new approach must include a market-based, bottom-up component that is responsive to the needs on the ground in cities, metros, and regions. 

It is a hopeful sign that the Biden administration has staffed key infrastructure positions in the decision-making chain with former state and local leaders such as former Mayor Pete Buttigieg at the Department of Transportation, former Mayor Marty Walsh at the Department of Labor, former Mayor Marcia Fudge at Housing and Urban Development, former Governor Gina Raimondo at the Department of Commerce and former Governor Jennifer Granholm at the Department of Energy.

To get a sense of what our regional and local leaders are thinking, we recently conducted a survey of leaders from the 100 largest metropolitan areas and the 100 largest cities — a total of 134 places. Combining their responses with information from other sources, we developed a database of more than 1,800 projects that local and regional leaders have identified as high priority. 

Transportation projects (37 percent of all projects) and public facilities (33 percent)  — everything from hospitals to emergency service centers to parks —  top the list. We also found that 20 percent of all transportation projects were for public transit and more than half of all energy projects were for renewables. 

Taken together, three broad themes emerged that the Biden administration should take into account in working with local officials to craft an infrastructure package. 

  • The pandemic has highlighted the need to focus on broadband access, emergency response and health facilities and public transit. In our survey, 64 percent of respondents identified broadband as a priority and 55 percent identified local facilities, principally for health services, as priorities.
  • Almost 30 percent of the 1,807 projects involve climate resilience, including public transit and renewable energy projects which can reduce emissions and clean water projects, many of which respond to stresses exacerbated by climate change. 
  • Broadband, power generation and intrastate transportation projects can harness the prosperity of metropolitan areas to enhance economic opportunities in rural areas. For example, renewable energy projects must necessarily be built on expanses of rural land large enough for wind and solar farms and can become sources of jobs and economic development for nearby communities. About 17 percent of the projects in our survey hold promise for urban-rural connections.

Consulting with our local and regional leaders on the Biden infrastructure package needn’t be time-consuming. But such a process will help our nation craft a strategy that will not only address immediate emergency needs, but also strengthen our national economy in the long-term. 

Balancing the infrastructure plans of our current top-down system with appropriate respect for the bottom-up knowledge which exists in our communities, cities, counties and states will give our country a better chance to create an infrastructure initiative that approaches this ideal.

Henry Cisneros is the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former mayor of San Antonio, Texas. William Fulton is director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University and former mayor of Ventura, California. 

Tags Broadband Construction Gina Raimondo Infrastructure Jennifer Granholm Joe Biden Marcia Fudge Marty Walsh Pete Buttigieg Political positions of Joe Biden

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