Nearly 1 in 3 American mayors think they may already have hurt their own citizens by making cost-saving decisions on critical infrastructure—a startling admission of fearfulness and accountability from the nation’s top urban executives on the heels of the Flint water crisis.
With criminal charges filed against three government officials in Michigan last week, the decaying state of urban infrastructure is emerging as a singular preoccupation of mayors, according to a survey by POLITICO magazine that found nearly half of America’s mayors believe their roads, bridges and water pipes have deteriorated critically over the past 10 years.
Mayors of all political stripes say they’ve been placed in an untenable financial bind because of severely limited infrastructure dollars that once flowed freely from state and federal coffers. More than a third of mayors said the next occupant of the White House should make infrastructure the top urban issue, ahead of even economic inequality (18 percent) and education (14 percent), otherwise high-profile priorities for this overwhelmingly Democratic bunch.
The revelations come from POLITICO Magazine’s fifth national Mayors Survey, part of the award-winning What Works series. The survey of 55 mayors—from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, Honolulu to Philadelphia, San Antonio to Tampa—is not scientific and four-fifths of respondents identify as Democratic, reflecting the left-leaning realities of city politics.
Topping the list of infrastructure concerns is roads and bridges, which 22 percent of mayors identified as vulnerable to disaster. Coming in second, at 16 percent, was water quality and pipe stability, perhaps reflecting the recent impact of the unfolding crisis in Flint.
“Our pipes, roads, sewers, grids, and so on … when they are old, inadequate, or overwhelmed, they will fail,” wrote one distressed mayor. “We clearly, absolutely know we are so far behind the world in infrastructure quality of any kind.”
Another mayor’s response practically dripped with disdain: “I once believed that when people were endangered because of public policy failures, our federal and state leaders would respond and address the problems,” she said. “Minneapolis, Flint and Hoosick Falls”—the New York town whose water was contaminated with a cancer-causing chemical—“demonstrate that federal leaders will not even effectively respond when lives are at issue. Instead, they will give meaningless sound bites, blaming others and letting the problems fester around the country.”
But experts say the infrastructure crisis has long been unfolding inside city halls—with mayors often the last to receive the dollars and the first to receive blame. “Mayors get infrastructure more than anybody,” said Robert Puentes, president of the Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation. “Most of these things—traditional public works, transit systems, water infrastructure, airports—are under their purview.” Puentes added: “Infrastructure has always been at the top of a lot of mayors’ agendas.”
Multiple factors have converged to dump infrastructure on the plates of mayors. According to one report, 85 percent of the 250 most heavily used bridges were built before 1970. Puentes points out that when a civil engineering disaster happens, it’s likely to occur in urban areas—like Hurricane Katrina, the 2007 Minneapolis bridge collapse or in Flint—where the country’s oldest and most heavily used infrastructure is concentrated. Finally, partisan fecklessness in national politics has tied the hands of mayors many miles removed from state and federal funding sources.
Political responsibility has been a flash point in the debates surrounding Flint, where Republican Governor Rick Snyder maintains that the 2013 decision to switch water supplies from the Detroit Water system to the nearby Flint River was made by the City Council, not a state-appointed emergency manager. Perhaps with this tug-of-war in mind, mayors told POLITICO they fear they’ll be left holding the bag for a problem that is national in scope. Asked if their governor would “have their back” in such a crisis, nearly 40 percent of mayors indicated they were not confident. Of those, over 85 percent were of a different political party than their governor (usually a Republican).
“This is a difficult time for mayors, because the federal government hasn’t stepped up,” Ray LaHood, the former secretary of transportation and now a public advocate for improving infrastructure, said last week by phone. “Mayors are struggling to find the money from their governors and states—struggling to find the resources to keep their buses and transit systems running, to keep up the infrastructure at airports, to fix up bridges and interstates that are crumbling.”
Coming to terms with the size of the country’s infrastructure problem requires absorbing a raft of dispiriting statistics. In its 2013 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded the country’s overall infrastructure a D-plus. LaHood says there are at least 57,000 “structurally deficient bridges across the country—aging structures that receive a ‘4’ or less on a safety scale of 1 through 9.
Congress doesn’t seem entirely unresponsive. After 10 years of Band-Aid funding—renewing infrastructure through 35 continuing resolutions that sometimes last only days—lawmakers last December passed legislation allocating $305 billion over five years for infrastructure projects, called the FAST Act. But the legislation was less than the $478 billion requested by the Obama administration, and LaHood points out that it’s funded for three years, not five. “It will allow states to fill a few potholes,” LaHood said, “but it will not get us anywhere near replacing train cars, fixing up aging transit systems, and really fixing up our interstate highways.”
The deterioration, experts widely agree, will also impact economic growth, a sentiment reflected widely in open-ended responses from the mayors.
“We need to recognize that infrastructure investment is economic development,” wrote one mayor, adding, “If our local utility company can’t keep the lights on, the business community will pass us by.” Said another mayor: “If we don’t fix our pipes, bridges, roads and airports, this will be a moment where the U.S. risks becoming a country with declining employment, rising costs of doing business, and a poorer quality of life for all Americans.”
Overwhelmingly, though, mayors’ first concern was safety. Asked to name which event struck a nerve with their own infrastructure fears, over 31 percent pointed to Hurricane Sandy, the 2012 storm that did $65 billion in damage in New Jersey and parts of New York City. Second was the Flint water crisis (nearly 16 percent), which was tied with the 2003 electrical blackouts throughout the Northeast and 2007’s I-35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis, which killed 13.
The bridge collapse—a national tragedy and weeklong fixture of the nightly news—endured for years as the poster image of the country’s infrastructure crisis. But one year later, then-mayor R.T. Rybak told NPR, “Many people … stood up and said, ‘We’re gonna make sure this never happens again.’ I don’t believe we’ve delivered on that promise.” Importantly, the National Transportation Safety Board ruled that an initial design flaw in the bridge—and not corrosion or cracking—was the culprit for the collapse, leading some observers to to point out the disaster may have been inevitable. Yet the bridge was also rated as “structurally deficient” in 1990, one of over 1,000 in Minnesota at that time. Because the bridge was part of an interstate highway, any structural repairs (or a replacement bridge) would have derived from the National Highway Trust Fund, the federal resource whose coffers are infused by the national gasoline tax. The gas tax hasn’t been raised since it was created in 1993 and, adjusted for inflation, is now two-thirds of its value at passage, according to one estimate.
But when asked to assign responsibility for the state of the country’s infrastructure, mayors remained curiously divided. Plenty pointed to Congress.
“The federal government has abandoned cities,” wrote one mayor. “I ask the DC beltway: How about leading for a change, like you used to.” Added another mayor: “Republicans in Congress are impeding infrastructure investments nationwide, either directly or indirectly. Most pay lip service to infrastructure needs, but their political instincts, which favor obstructionism, seem to be a more powerful influence on behavior.”
But other mayors singled out state leaders—including high profile governors, like Rick Scott and Chris Christie. At least one Republican mayor blamed her city council, writing, “A very few City Council members would rather over spend on personnel than address infrastructure.” And still others, mainly tea party-weary Democrats, singled out voters for buying into a low-taxes mentality, with get-what-you-pay-for scorn: “Whether our city invests in infrastructure is almost entirely a decision that rests in the voters’ hands when they consider bond elections. We expect help and funding from the state and federal government, but ultimately our community is responsible for its own well-being.”
Mayors were also divided over the condition of their own infrastructure. While nearly half said they thought infrastructure quality had deteriorated, a nearly equal number said they thought things had improved to some degree in the previous 10 years, even while highlighting the country’s overall decline and lampooning a broken system tasked with fixing it. Some experts have theorized that the $48 billion in stimulus money for infrastructure projects was responsible for the uptick in morale, but Puentes hinted at the attractive psychology of building new projects as opposed to maintaining old ones: “The old legacy system is 100 years old or more in some cases,” said Puentes, adding that in one important respect, city politics and finances agree: “It’s much easier to build new things than reinvest in old ones.”
But in mayors’ inability to identify a clear antagonist, the survey not only captures the complexity of infrastructure issues as they are, but perhaps an emerging divide: the shifting of infrastructure from a federal issue to a state one. “It’s mayors saying, we know there’s no cavalry coming from Washington,” Puentes said, pointing out that 18 state legislatures have raised their own state gas tax in the same time that Congress hasn’t—including eight last year alone. Recent additions came from mixed-party legislatures and executives (including Iowa and Washington state) but at least three—Wyoming, Idaho and, curiously, Michigan—were passed in the post-tea party age by all-Republican governments. “Wyoming! Completely Republican!” says LaHood, chuckling. “And to my knowledge, no one’s lost an election over that. So in those states, they now have the ability to have some progression in infrastructure. They’re not sitting around wringing their hands and waiting for the feds to help them out.”
A growing sense of self-sufficiency doesn’t mean mayors are ready to forget about the federal government. The overwhelmingly Democratic bunch not only thinks the next president’s first urban priority ought to be infrastructure, but ranked the remaining five presidential candidates on their “infrastructure IQ.” Unsurprisingly, the pro-Hillary bunch gave first prize to Clinton, with 46 mayors giving her average or higher marks; and to little surprise, mayors ranked Donald Trump and Ted Cruz in in the basement. But in a nod to Flint and the powerful role that governors still play—for good or ill—the left-leaning mayors gave an edge to John Kasich over Bernie Sanders, 38 to 37, saying the Republican governor of Ohio better understands the challenges to restore urban infrastructure.
But until President Clinton—or Kasich—rides in on a white horse, mayors will have to stay creative. “Look at what they’re doing. They’re looking for other ways to fund infrastructure, looking or foreign investment, looking for private investment, looking to public private partnership opportunities,” said LaHood. Added Puentes: “There’s a huge understanding of new revenue sources, new innovative financing.”
Mayors similarly highlighted such creative financing techniques, especially public-private partnerships, describing a kind of third way financing when tax increases weren’t feasible and Congress or state legislators didn’t step forward. Mayor John Marchione of Redmond, Washington described a partnership with Microsoft to fund infrastructure upgrades; Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco cited a partnership with the federal government that leveraged $780 million in private investor equity for affordable housing; Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana, touted a public-private partnership to improve their airport; Tacoma, Washington teamed up with a private developer to create a mixed-use district; Mayor Mark Stodola of Little Rock, Arkansas, credited the Creative Corridor, a redevelopment project banking on $100 million in private investment, with restoring the city’s downtown. And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti described “aggressively pursuing public/private partnerships to cut costs and speed the delivery of our projects.”
“We’re doing our share at the local level,” as one mayor put it. “Now it’s incumbent on the State Legislature and on this Congress to invest in a 21st century infrastructure.”
Perhaps no respondent more epitomized the schism than Mayor Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis, who highlighted upbeat initiatives to create and fund 30 miles of protected bike lanes, as well as construct new transit lines in economically-challenged neighborhoods. Yet even while funding may not have been the immediate cause of the 2007 bridge collapse in her city, for Hodges, the shadow of the disaster still looms.
“I was on the City Council when the bridge collapsed in 2007,” Hodges said, before taking a crack at what is holding back the country’s infrastructure progress. “Congress has been the biggest barrier. I am glad we have a long-term transportation bill, but it is entirely insufficient to the need nationally and locally.” Between her time on council and ascending to the mayor’s office, Hodges alluded to the promises she heard from Congress and the federal government that similar catastrophes wouldn’t repeat.
“No,” Hodges said. “Those promises have not been delivered.”
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