The Common Threads that Underlie Our Infrastructure Debate

Despite regional and local differences, officials from around the country see eye to eye on some important concerns.
December 22, 2014
By Bob Graves  |  Contributor
Associate director of the Governing Institute and a co-founder of Governing's parent organization, e.Republic

There's no shortage of discussion about the principal infrastructure issues facing communities across the country. Concerns such as aging roads, bridges, water system and other public works, constrained local and state government budgets, and diminishing federal funding generally make it to the top of most lists on the subject. Regional and local differences -- ranging from age of infrastructure to financial resources to regulations, environmental conditions and leadership -- produce large variations in how these subjects manifest themselves in any given place.

Over the past year Governing conducted a series of five editorial roundtables around the country to better understand these regional differences and solicit perceptions and opinions of government leaders engaged in with these issues. Public-sector participants included elected, appointed and career leaders in Cincinnati, New Orleans, New York City, Philadelphia and San Diego.

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The roundtables were open-ended to allow for unstructured exchanges. As would be expected, there were differences of opinion and, at times, disputes about facts. But the discussions were always engaging and produced valuable insights, and there were some areas of widespread agreement.

The need for regional cooperation, for example, came up at every roundtable, often stated with passion. "Recent important projects failed due to lack of cooperation," lamented one participant. Added another: "When we have regional agreement, things get done." Participants expressed many advantages to creating strong regional identities ranging from expanding tourism and attracting businesses to improving transportation systems and reducing adverse environmental impacts.

As valuable as individual city governments are, it was clear that city and county leaders collectively feel they share a responsibility to foster effective regional intergovernmental cooperation to ensure that vital services are provided to support their economies, their environments and the well-being of residents.

Along this vein, participants emphasized the necessity to increase the public's trust in government to do the right thing. More generally, it was agreed, government needs to do a better job of communicating about its activities -- particularly focused on what it is doing that is effective and how money is well spent. As one participant put it, "We need do it right on the small things to earn the trust to do bigger ones." Don't just provide statistics and summaries, said another, but "tell stories about what has worked as a way to create this trust."

A common topic was the importance of clearly communicating a vision of what the public will gain through infrastructure investments. Streets, roads and sidewalks "come up on virtually every neighborhood survey as top priorities" and are often the most visible connection to government for most residents, noted one participant. There was strong agreement on the value of assessing and surveying for infrastructure needs, prioritizing them into planning, and then funding them on this basis.

In the end, recognition of the importance of infrastructure to the health of a community was perhaps the unifying theme to the conversations. "Infrastructure is the ultimate quality-of-life issue in our community," observed Mark Kersey, a San Diego city council member who chairs the council's infrastructure committee. "It's the highest priority for my constituents, even higher than finances now that the economy has improved. Citizens want us to invest in infrastructure. Businesses want us to invest."

In a very real sense, then, it's clear that a community's residents are always going to be the ultimate experts on whether infrastructure is functioning well as a system. After all, as Kersey put it, "infrastructure touches every life."