A Conversation with Cities: Mayors on Closing Gaps in Infrastructure and Economic Opportunity

Four mayors reflect on their attempts to better meet the infrastructure needs of low-income residents.
October 24, 2017
By Ed Skyler  |  Contributor
Ed is executive VP of global public affairs at Citi and oversees the Citi Foundation, an underwriter for City Accelerator.

The following blog post is part of the City Accelerator initiative, a collaboration between Governing, the Citi Foundation and Living Cities that aims to speed the adoption of innovative local government projects within and across cities that will have a significant impact on the lives of their residents, especially those with low incomes.

Citi estimates that $59 trillion will need to be spent on infrastructure globally over the next 15 years, a staggering figure that speaks to how much work needs to be done to shore up existing infrastructure and build additional capacity to keep up with urban growth. While the needs are immense, investment in infrastructure in the U.S. at the federal level has fallen to just 1.4% of GDP, and local governments are being challenged to meet the needs of their residents with increasingly limited resources.

When I served as Deputy Mayor for Operations for New York City under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, I saw first-hand the need for infrastructure projects and the financial strains they created. From affordable housing investments to projects such as construction of NYC Water Tunnel No. 3 (a multi-decade project that is still underway, and the largest capital project in the city’s history), to transportation projects such as extension of the 7 subway line, capital projects are costly and can take years to plan for and implement. Difficult decisions are required to prioritize resources.

Recognizing the trade-offs local governments face when it comes to needed capital projects, the City Accelerator sought to identify new approaches to help cities meet these needs. Over the last 18 months, the City Accelerator brought together four cities to explore and adopt new practices and policies aimed at closing funding gaps in their five-year city infrastructure plans, with particular attention to projects that will have a positive economic impact on low-income residents. As the cities embark on these projects, their learnings and best practices can be applied by other cities facing similar – though localized – infrastructure needs.

Through the City Accelerator group focusing on urban infrastructure, Pittsburgh tested innovative financing options to repair hundreds of stairways that residents rely on every day. St. Paul collaborated across city departments to develop a stormwater funding mechanism that addresses costs associated with vacant industrial sites and increases neighborhood vitality. San Francisco explored potential financing mechanisms to fortify the city's seawall, which protects its downtown area and a major transit hub. Washington, D.C. utilized a newly launched executive Office of Public-Private Partnership to convene agency leaders and source financing ideas for installing energy efficient street lights.

In a final reflection of their cities’ participation in the City Accelerator, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, San Francisco Mayor Edwin Lee and Washington DC Mayor Muriel Bowser share how each of their cities is working to improve infrastructure and outcomes for low-income residents.

Why is investing in infrastructure a priority for your city and how does it enable economic opportunity for low-income residents?

Mayor Peduto: Pittsburgh is proud of our more than 700 sets of city steps. The steps serve the same purpose that they did a century ago – they connect residents to job opportunities and bridge communities that are separated by topography. When we find ways to preserve and enhance these assets, we bring residents closer to each other and connect them to the City.

Through the planning process we've been undertaking as part of the City Accelerator program, we've heard dozens of stories from residents about how the steps are critical lifelines to transit, school, work, and shopping for Pittsburghers across the city, and how important this infrastructure is for community building. By prioritizing which steps are in most need of support and renovation, we’ll be able to ensure that our citizens can better utilize them as a part of their transportation network.

How can cities align urban infrastructure and sustainability goals?

Mayor Coleman: Throughout my nearly twelve years as Mayor of Saint Paul, I have been committed to making our city a leader in sustainable city living, including embracing our connection to the Mississippi River. Efforts toward this vision range in scale from increasing efficiency of city operations, saving over $1.3 million in electric and natural gas costs since 2009, to approaching city building in ways that enhance sustainability and community vitality.

The redevelopment in the West Side Flats area is a key example. There, we are working to create a thriving neighborhood connecting the larger West Side community to the Mississippi River and Downtown Saint Paul. With assistance from the City Accelerator, we are employing new methods to establish a green stormwater management system that will double as a community space.

On Earth Day this year, with support from the Environmental Protection Agency, we held an event at the future site of the West Side Flats Greenway to engage with residents on the design plans. Many people shared what the new green space will mean to them, by drawing inspirational messages on 100 buckets holding sunflowers that mark the future greenway.

As we embark on new development throughout Saint Paul, it is crucial to create sustainable plans that protect our environment and counteract climate change. We already see the positive impact that this vision has on the community and our environment. Through these efforts, we can ensure that Saint Paul is a city where residents and visitors will continue to thrive for many generations.

What role do cities play in terms of sparking and driving innovation in the national infrastructure conversation?

Mayor Lee: In the face of long-term generational challenges such as climate change, cities must pursue innovative solutions and collaborative approaches in order to be effective. Our environment, infrastructure and vulnerable communities require timely responses, and cities have a unique ability and responsibility to deliver resolutions that are both swift and successful.

In San Francisco, we have been thinking about how we might address transformative projects like the retrofit and adaptation of the Embarcadero seawall, which supports critical transportation and power linkages. Climate change can be abstract. It’s essential that city leaders effectively communicate the real-life impacts it can have on our city and how we need to invest in our city’s resilience. We also have to be open to new approaches. In San Francisco, we are exploring models like environmental impact bonds, public infrastructure banks and Community Facilities Districts (CFDs), in order to leave no stone unturned.

When undertaking long-term challenges like San Francisco’s seawall project, it is important for cities to exchange best practices. Collectives such as the City Accelerator offer venues for mayors and cities to build upon proven solutions and explore pioneering new approaches.

How can public-private partnerships (P3s) help cities build and maintain infrastructure?

Mayor Bowser: Since coming into office, my Administration has made closing the infrastructure gap in Washington, DC a top priority. By closing this gap, we will build a stronger, more resilient city and ensure continued and expanded prosperity for more District residents. P3s allow us to make the most of limited public dollars by leveraging private sector financing and innovation, and they are a key tool in building and maintaining DC’s infrastructure more effectively. P3s not only guarantee that our assets are taken care of for their entire lifecycle, but they also allow us to transfer risk through long-term, performance-based contracts.

We looked to the City Accelerator to help us create an actionable plan for infrastructure. Just one example is our “Smarter. Safer. Greener.” initiative, through which we will convert our 75,000 street lights to more reliable, energy-efficient LED technology while also putting in place a remote control monitoring system and a smart city platform that provides free broadband Wi-Fi. The P3 model will enable us to complete this project in just three years instead of eight, and our private partner will incur the cost of fixing the system if it does not meet our standards. As my Administration continues building a safer, stronger DC, P3s have gotten us to a place where we are better prepared than ever to meet our infrastructure needs of today and tomorrow.

---

Despite the gaps in infrastructure investment, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, San Francisco and Washington, DC are identifying solutions. Through the City Accelerator, mayors noted the importance of communicating with their citizens to inform strategy and secure buy-in, as cities often depend on public support to implement their financing strategies. Also key is an openness to exploring unconventional ideas and working across agencies to align goals and increase results. Through the City Accelerator, the Citi Foundation is proud to support these four cities with the innovative approaches – as well as the flexibility and freedom – to tackle complex infrastructure projects that enhance thriving urban centers that serve all of their citizens.

To learn more about the City Accelerator and the Citi Foundation’s commitment to building vibrant cities, visit citifoundation.com.

This post originally appeared on the Citigroup blog

Ed Skyler | Contributor  |  @edskyler
Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.