John Robert Smith: Infrastructure Planning is a Roadmap for Our Long-Term Vision

March 8, 2017

Just before the presidential election in 2016, CityLab surveyed mayors to assess what they wanted most from a new president. By a large margin, these mayors—Democrats and Republicans alike—said federal help to address infrastructure challenges was one of their top concerns, and they viewed current funding mechanisms as serious obstacles toward moving their local economies forward.

As a former four-term Republican mayor of a Mississippi city founded at the junction of two railroads that spurred the community’s economic growth for nearly a century, I understand why infrastructure rated so highly among my peers. What other government-related investment stimulates economic growth that can create vibrant, walkable, connected communities? When made wisely, infrastructure investments bring prosperity to all residents, families, and workers and produce the rising tide that lifts all boats in their communities.

The president has finally released his plan, and now it is time for Congress to act. Compared with what the president has proposed, here are six components of a responsive infrastructure plan that will help cities realize their economic potential:

Generate real funding

The president’s plan offers no increase in funding, instead proposing to take $200 billion from programs that already fund infrastructure needs and repackage that money into a new program that the administration hopes will leverage another trillion dollars in investment. The president’s plan is heavily reliant upon new state and local debt, selling off assets and tolling more highways. We need real federal funding backed by a guaranteed source of revenue. Historically, economic development and opportunity have depended on federal investments in transportation that connect communities and allow businesses to bring goods to market. Direct federal investment funded the construction of our highways, bridges, and transit systems, creating economic opportunities. Replicating that success without real, new funding is nearly impossible.

Fix the infrastructure we have first

Our country has a $2 trillion infrastructure deficit. Deteriorating transportation infrastructure, the result of years of reduced federal investment, hinders economic growth. Funding maintenance for aging infrastructure should be paramount. Before funding new projects that bring years of additional maintenance costs, Congress should dedicate federal transportation formula dollars toward maintenance to make sure the system is returned to a state of good repair, is resilient, and works for all users.

Design smart new projects that create real value

We must ensure that scarce infrastructure funds go only to the best new projects. When communities compete for federal funds, they work harder to put forward projects that maximize return on investment, provide creative solutions, and involve a diverse range of stakeholders. Using competition, local control, and objective evaluation can help ensure that federal funds flow to the projects that deliver the greatest benefits to communities.

Smart projects include resilient infrastructure investments like broadband internet, clean air and water, and reliable electricity. These investments create long-lasting value and deserve careful consideration distinct from considerations for funding deferred maintenance.   

Measure our success so taxpayers understand the return on investment

Investments in infrastructure and transportation are not an end but a means to foster economic development and improve access to jobs and opportunity. Citizens believe that decisions about infrastructure are the result of murky, mysterious political processes. This perception is rarely equated with tangible, measureable results. Consequently, there is a mismatch, and the return on investment is either misunderstood or missed altogether. Federal agencies should be held accountable by evaluating how well investments help achieve shared goals. Newly available data and tools allow agencies to measure better than ever before how well transportation networks connect people to jobs and other necessities. Similar measures exist for other infrastructure. We need to employ them and restore accountability and transparency.

Outline a bold, inclusive, and visionary plan  

The president’s plan boldly includes all types of infrastructure: transportation, broadband, water, energy, brownfields, wastewater, public lands, and rural infrastructure. But funding the new $200 billion effort takes money away from existing transportation programs, forcing one insufficiently resourced asset to compete against another for funding. A visionary, inclusive plan not only includes a broad array of infrastructure classes but paints a picture of how our lives will be measurably different or better after the investment. A visionary plan should build upon funding mechanisms already in place to invest in infrastructure while funding new smart projects. These investments should propel our economy forward while delivering the services people need and deserve. An inclusive plan encourages competition for scare dollars between applicants and does not force any mayor or other elected official to choose between funding for a new transit project and clean water. We can and should have both. 

Revitalize rural and small-town America

The president’s plan identifies $50 billion in investments for rural and small-town America. Often, smaller towns where the entire community intersects at First and Main are forgotten. Making it into the administration’s plan is a huge victory. But giving the lion’s share of the funding to governors through a formula grant program is misdirected. It hurts rural areas. According to the National League of Cities, 90 percent of municipal governments cover populations of 25,000 people or less. If Congress wants to help revitalize America’s small towns, it needs to give local rural governments more control over the federal dollars set aside for this purpose.

John Robert Smith is chairman of Transportation for America, where he advises on strategy, capacity building, and national outreach. He became chairman in 2012 after leading Reconnecting America as president and CEO. Before that, he was the mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, for 16 years. During his tenure as mayor, Smith received acclaim for his aggressive facilitation of public-private partnerships that resulted in over $430 million of infrastructure projects that bolstered the economy and quality of life. A recognized authority on public and private transportation and development funding, he guided the development and construction of the Southeast’s first multimodal transportation center, Meridian Union Station.

A two-time graduate of the University of Mississippi and a graduate of the Senior Executive in State and Local Government program at the Harvard Kennedy School, Smith is the co-owner of Point Investments and is a senior policy adviser to DC-based Smart Growth America. He has served on numerous boards, including the US Conference of Mayors, National Forum on the Future of Passenger Rail, and Amtrak, where he was chairman.

Smith is a passionate supporter of the arts and is a recipient of the Americans for the Arts and US Conference of Mayor’s Local Arts Leadership Award.