John Surico is a freelance journalist and researcher who covers New York City transit for VICE and frequently contributes to the New York Times. He is based in Queens, NY.
Local transportation and utility projects could sure use federal assistance. But these mayors are going it alone.
When the Trump administration released its long-awaited infrastructure plan in February, one of the loudest voices of dissent came from mayors. That was no surprise: The legislation called upon cities to prove that they can cough up 80 percent of the costs for federally funded infrastructure projects, before the feds picked up the remaining 20 percent. In effect, only $200 billion of the $1.5 trillion total would actually come from Washington, and only after a round of cuts to existing infrastructure programs. With so little support from Uncle Sam, it seemed barely defensible as a federal “plan.”
“At a minimum, we’re asking for an equal partnership of 50 percent funding from the federal level to local governments,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, the mayor of Gary, Indiana, and vice president of the National League of Cities (NLC), after the bill was announced.
But when it comes to building and maintaining infrastructure, many urban areas have grown increasingly familiar with workarounds to self-fund projects. And not just large cities like Los Angeles, which passed a $121 billion transit sales tax measure in 2016. In New York, Virginia, and New Jersey, public-private partnerships have brought in banks and private firms to help pay for bridge and road repairs.
Mid-sized cities are playing ball, too.
Their solutions to national issues was the topic of a policy forum last week at New York University that brought together four mayors from mid-size cities across the U.S.: Peter Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio; John Giles of Mesa, Arizona; and Toni Harp of New Haven, Connecticut. Their cities represent a mix of economic challenges and political proclivities (Giles is a Republican; the rest are Democrats), but they all share at least one thing: a growing list of infrastructure needs, which have become a ballooning financial burden for cities in recent years.
Like many cities in America, Dayton had a longstanding pothole problem, but not enough funds to fix them. So, 2016, the first income tax increase in 32 years—from 2.25 to 2.5 percent—was presented to voters as a way to fund road repavement, among other things. A resident who earned $35,000 would have to pay $1.60 more a week under the eight-year levy, which would ultimately generate $11 million a year in additional revenue. The measure was approved by a margin of 12 points. And, in addition to fixing potholes, the tax has gone to funding universal pre-K, the hiring of more police officers, and the mowing of lawns on vacant lots.
“Folks trust when local communities say they’re going to do something, and they know where to find you when you don’t. Secondly, [residents] know how to get it done, and we know it has to get done,” Whaley told the audience in downtown Manhattan.
According to John Giles, the mayor of Mesa, “local governments don’t sit still, because we can’t.” The smaller cities of the greater Phoenix area faced a serious congestion issue in the 1990s on their vast network of freeways, he said. In 1985, the Arizona Legislature allowed cities and counties to create their own regional public transit authorities, but it wasn’t until a series of half-cent taxes were passed in Maricopa County in the late 1990s that construction on a light rail system began, to help alleviate traffic. “It was a horrible situation,” Giles recalled. “Out of frustration, our voters passed a regional sales tax that will sunset here in over 4 or 5 years, and we’re already talking about what’s next.”
No wonder. Opening in 2008, the 26-mile line, a part of Valley Metro, is now the 13th busiest light-rail system in America, serving nearly 50,000 daily riders (and counting). It connects Mesa to downtown Phoenix, ASU, and Tempe—all of which have seen rapid growth in recent years—and a two-mile extension into Mesa’s downtown is expected to be completed by spring 2019. A 2015 report said the light rail alone has led to $8.2 billion in development in the area.
"There’s been a requirement in our community for the last couple of years that, in order to qualify for tax breaks, you need to be within a half-mile of transit,” Giles said. “That has allowed these [housing development] projects to come in. Now we have a pretty good foothold, so every mile or so along the light rail corridor, we have affordable housing projects.”
It’s not just taxes that cities are employing to improve their infrastructure. In South Bend, Indiana, Peter Buttigieg has gained national recognition (and presidential buzz) in part because the 36-year-old has launched data initiatives to modernize road repairs, and water utilities. One such pilot, Buttigieg said, will install smartphone-like cameras in the windshields of road repair crews that can monitor hot spots for potholes—rampant in South Bend—and feed the data back to the city for repair. Another partnership with a local startup gathered data on where and when water systems fail most, in order to predict them before they happen, he said. In 2012, South Bend became the first city in America to effectively bring the sewer system onto the cloud. “We need to do things like this to wring every bit of efficiency out of the systems,” he said at the forum. “Because Washington is just not going to be there.”
But cities can only achieve so much on their own. There are bigger projects that, experts say, cannot be achieved without federal assistance.
“From bridges to broadband, cities are doing everything possible to rebuild and reimagine America’s infrastructure. But this is simply not enough to close the nation’s $2 trillion investment gap—cities cannot shoulder this burden on our own,” said Mark Stodola, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, and president of the NLC, in a statement to CityLab. “We need a strong federal partnership that invests in our cities and America’s workforce, so that we are building for 2050 not just repairing 1950.”
The national organization offers a few examples of projects that beg for federal help. Hattiesburg, Mississippi, has water infrastructure needs that are estimated to cost up to $500 million, of which the small city can only cover a mere fraction. In fast-growing San Antonio, Texas, streets, sidewalks, and drainage utilities need to be expanded and updated, at a price tag well into the billions. And officials from Gilcrest, a small city in Colorado where 16 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level, said in a press release provided by the NLC that “the ability to fund multi-million-dollar projects”—like sewer lines, storm infrastructure, and an aging town hall—“is simply not here.”
Federal assistance of any scale does not appear to be on the immediate horizon. During one of his administration’s periodic “infrastructure weeks” in March, President Trump told reporters that the plan will have to wait until after the midterm elections in November, which will likely decide which party controls “the power of the purse” in Washington.
“It's unfortunate,” said Nan Whaley, of Dayton, Ohio, at the forum. “[Infrastructure] could be much better served if the state and federal government stepped in, and created a partnership like we used to have. We call for that all the time.”
But in the meantime, they’re not waiting around.