Historic infrastructure bill presents unique opportunity and challenges for communities


With the passage of the $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by Congress, cities and counties across the country are taking stock of the needs of their communities to best prioritize spending when funding arrives, I hope as soon as possible.

The landmark initiative, which is slated to be signed by President Joe Biden next week, allocates more money for infrastructure than many communities have seen in nearly a century since the adoption of the New Deal during the great Depression.

“For cities and counties, I would do two things: look at long-term goals and strategies… (and) involve the community so they can understand what our long-term goals are,” said Elizabeth Kellar, Director public policies. for the International City / County Management Association (ICMA).

Specifically, the bill sets aside $ 284 billion for transportation, $ 55 billion for water, $ 65 billion for broadband, $ 73 billion for energy and electricity, $ 21 billion for $ for environmental sanitation, $ 8.3 billion for water infrastructure in the West (to cope with drought conditions) and $ 46 billion for resilience.

10 years from now, Kellar said she expects a retrospective public consensus on the infrastructure bill to reflect a sense of gratitude that “we started this effort when we did,” a she declared. “We look at our national highway system with almost reverence – we look at the Brooklyn Bridge with almost awe. “

The nation’s historic focus on infrastructure has weakened in recent decades. And in recent years, decisions about infrastructure spending have been made annually, with grant programs extended for one year in each legislative session. This anticipatory mentality at the federal level has made it difficult for local officials to conduct business prospectively and meet long-term infrastructure needs in their communities.

With increasingly dangerous storms caused by climate change and the evolution of green energy technologies, the need for smart spending initiatives to address America’s crumbling infrastructure, much of which has been built as a result of the New Deal, is crying out.

“The need for greater resilience is clearly a growing need due to climate change, and I think neglect is another part of that – this bridge that we built 100 years ago is starting to show signs that” it needs to be fixed – it’s a huge project, can we do it? ”Kellar said.

Meeting infrastructure needs of such magnitude takes time; and this is something the local administrators did not receive. So far, that is.

“You can imagine that if you’re trying to figure out if you have enough money to upgrade a bridge and you only have enough funding for up to a year, it’s hard to put the contract in place and (have confidence) that you will be able to complete the project, ”she continued.

From a local government perspective, one of the main strengths of the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill is that it replenishes key grant programs for at least five years, providing administrators with “planning opportunities.” long term ”for the first time in a long time.

But while this forward-thinking approach is needed, it will also pose challenges. On the one hand, officials will need to spend time educating the public on what it will take to tackle big projects. Reconstructing a bridge or updating a sewer system is not an overnight project, even if that is the delay voters expect.

“Anything that takes more than six months to accomplish, they get frustrated – we’re going to have a job in state and local government to talk about progress,” Kellar said. “It will be a long term effort.”

Additionally, small town governments may lack the in-house expertise to make spending decisions on new initiatives such as emerging green energy technologies, regional transport, or resilient infrastructure to tackle the shift. weather conditions. Kellar stressed that it will be important for local administrators to seek help either by consulting with experts or reaching out to adjacent communities and working together on projects.

In this, the bill encourages collaboration between counties by sending money to regional planning organizations, which “gets towns and villages to work together,” she said. It also takes representation into account and, through a few different mechanisms, brings in many different voices.

For communities unsure of what action to take, Kellar suggested reaching out to advocacy organizations, including the International City / County Management Association, the National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, the Conference of United States mayors and government finance. Association of Officers, among others.

For the future, rules will have to be worked out on how the expenses will be allocated, and this will take time. In the meantime, Kellar has pointed out another bill currently in the House, having passed the Senate unanimously, which could help local administrators get projects started immediately, before they receive anything from the bill. on infrastructure.

The legislation, the “Law on the Flexibility of States, Local Tribes and Territories for Tax Adjustment, Infrastructure and Disaster Relief ”, would like “provide additional flexibility for the $ 350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (Recovery Fund) authorized under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), ”according to a brief from the National Association of Counties. If passed, it would allow “counties to allocate additional funds (stimulus funds) for the provision of government services, to invest in economic development and infrastructure activities, and to provide emergency relief.” in the event of natural disasters and their economic impacts “.

A stipulation in the bill limits this flexible spending capacity to $ 10 million, making it particularly beneficial for small communities.

“This will give these small jurisdictions… a clear direction, so they can put money in a bridge or make up for lost revenue, or make cyber investments,” Keller said. “With this flexibility bill, they could immediately (start). You already have the money in the bank because you have already received your first payment (ARPA).


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