It is time to retire the false choice. Too often, we hear that you have to choose between fixing aging infrastructure, building resilience, or mending inequity. Our experience with the latest City Accelerator tells us that, in reality, sometimes you can have it all. By acting on these subjects together, local leaders can take non-traditional approaches that draw the connection between capital budgets that better weather business cycles and climate change, consider avoided costs as a form of revenue to support investment choices, and bring future value to current residents by allowing them to benefit from increased jobs, incomes and wealth. Infrastructure development, done right, fosters economic and social impacts for low-income populations while building more stable financial strategies.
Underfunded infrastructure creates real costs for Americans. According to a report by the American Society of Civil Engineers, failing infrastructure costs America’s families $3,400 annually in lost disposable income. Low-income communities are affected most. Since this City Accelerator initiative began, the news has been rife with health crises due to poor water infrastructure and natural catastrophes that vulnerable urban residents, predominantly people of color, could not escape and are still dealing with. These events exacerbate existing issues that these communities face, making it difficult for them to benefit from or contribute to their city’s prosperity.
In our latest City Accelerator guide, “Resilience, Equity, and Innovation,” we share the tools and processes four cities, Pittsburgh, Saint Paul, San Francisco and Washington D.C., explored in an effort to increase equity and fund infrastructure. With new approaches to managing public resources, these cities showed how low-income residents in particular benefit from capital projects that drive cities forward.
Over the course of 18 months, these cities overcame multiple obstacles and identified dozens of funding strategies from local, state, and federal sources. They were able to raise funding for the planning phase of a capital project and prioritize (or in some cases, re-prioritize) them through internal and external stakeholder engagement. Three of the cities focused on a high priority asset in their capital plan: Pittsburgh’s 800 sets of public stairways, Saint Paul’s brownfields, and San Francisco’s seawall. Washington D.C.’s Office of Public-Private Partnerships (OP3) designed guidelines and criteria for evaluating public-private partnerships (P3) projects, with an initial focus on upgrading the city’s streetlights.
Their City Accelerator experience, captured in this guide by Jennifer Mayer, a national expert on infrastructure finance who served as the subject matter expert for these cities, can help other local governments identify future savings and revenue to finance the projects that their communities need today. The guide includes a framework for financial strategies – building the project vision, discovering diverse revenue and funding sources, identifying financial tools, considering alternative delivery models, and putting strategies into practice – but also reminding cities what’s often needed is not available capital, but the revenue to pay back what they borrow.
Of the myriad financial tools reviewed in the guide, none can create revenue. What the guide does show is that cities whose capital plan is oriented towards accomplishing economic development, racial and income equity, and environmental quality outcomes, will also identify appropriate financial tools, unlock new sources of revenue, or even enter a new type of project delivery model more easily.
Our City Accelerator cities took on an infrastructure finance challenge because they can and because they must. As San Francisco Mayor Lee and other mayors reflected on their cities’ participation in the City Accelerator, cities have a unique ability and responsibility to deliver swift and successful infrastructure solutions to their residents. After reading this guide, some cities may prioritize administrative ease in selecting capital budget options. Other cities may find the investments in additional staff time and expense worth the increased financial capacity. No matter what, we encourage cities to take action.
Pittsburgh, Saint Paul, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. broke down the siloes of funding and planning and created teams with representatives from across four city departments – economic development, planning and public works, and the mayor’s office – to come up with solutions that others across the country can learn from and adopt. By taking their lead, other cities can use the lessons and the resources in this guide to build tangible and sustainable resiliency and equity in our cities.