Public Infrastructure Investment an Opportunity to Lift Up Cities

May 15, 2014 -- Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel

National leaders are meeting in Washington, DC this week under the rubric of Infrastructure Week. Their message is clear – we need a renewed commitment to infrastructure investment. 

In fact, America’s cities are desperate for new infrastructure investment. Decades of disinvestment and failure to maintain mid-20th century infrastructure have left our cities in crisis. The most dramatic infrastructure failures, like the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minnesota, yield tragic and deathly consequences. But even where those failures are not as dramatic, crumbling infrastructure diminishes property values, hinders private investment, and leaves city residents with reduced quality of life, fewer job opportunities, and less money for much-needed public services. The effects of concentrated poverty that stem from these problems are no less deadly than a bridge collapse: residents of urban neighborhoods have higher rates of asthma and cancer; they face daily exposure to violence and pollution; long-term unemployment and mass incarceration rob their communities of economic and human capital.

Renewed investment is long overdue, but it is not nearly enough. As local and national leaders ponder strategies for renewing America’s cities, they would do well to learn from the collaborations of community, worker, civil rights, and environmental leaders that are pushing regional and municipal leaders to get more for their infrastructure investments. Where they are able to partner with the local and elected officials who control public investments, they are leveraging greater benefits for cities that promise to reduce inequality and clean the environment while improving the health of our communities.

The new vision for infrastructure investment focuses on how major public investments can yield benefits along multiple axes, putting unemployed communities back to work, cleaning and greening urban environments, and making sure infrastructure supports community needs rather than competing with them. 

No longer isolated cases, these stories provide witness to the transformative potential of public investment combined with strong policies that address pressing needs on the ground. 

Like the comprehensive jobs policies recently enacted around the redevelopment Oakland’s army base. Redevelopment of the base – a tract of land the size of 200 football fields – will probably be the largest and most catalytic project Oakland residents will see in this generation. Slated for the site: a logistics hub that includes warehousing and distribution to augment facilities at the port. A coalition led by the East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy created a comprehensive agenda that ensures Oakland residents have a better chance at getting into the high quality construction careers created by the redevelopment. Construction and logistics employers will pay real wages that can support families. The hiring program, together with Oakland’s existing ban on screening for criminal records, means people coming out of the criminal justice system have a real chance at long-term employment at the port. Infrastructure investment? Yes. But also investment in the human capital and the West Oakland communities adjacent to the port. 

Similarly, when LA’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority moved forward with a plan to invest $6 billion in new construction, a construction careers policy ensured low-income workers and workers of color would have easier access to new jobs. In partnership with the Los Angeles building trades unions, the Los Angeles Alliance for New Economy led the charge to make sure the 23,400 new jobs would be of the highest quality jobs possible.

It’s not just a California thing. In Atlanta, Georgia Stand Up and its sister organization, Georgia Trade Up, are working to connect low-income workers and workers of color to new construction career opportunities created by public investment, including the redevelopment of Fort McPherson. 

Anticipating new taxes to fund redevelopment of the Bradley Center, Milwaukee community and labor leaders can draw on the lessons of the 2008 MORE Ordinance, which applied job quality and job access standards to public infrastructure and publicly-subsidized private development. Such a move would make new public infrastructure a boon to all communities, not only those rich enough to afford NBA game tickets.

In New York, the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding has posed a number of challenging questions to leaders overseeing Hurricane Sandy recovery funds. Can’t that money do more for our communities? Can’t it create better quality jobs for unemployed city residents, and ensure low-income families have equitable access to benefits like mold remediation?

And in Pittsburgh, community and environmental leaders are advancing a new vision for green infrastructure that would create stronger environmental outcomes for the reconstruction of Allegheny County’s outdated water and sewer systems. 

Yes, we need more money in our cities. But city leaders that attempt merely to fix crumbling roads and bridges and remediate outdated water and sewer systems are missing out on a huge opportunity. 

Yes, please rebuild our cities. And give us more opportunity while you do it.