Beyond the Numbers: Telling the Infrastructure Story

The District of Columbia, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and St. Paul begin working on developing new models for funding public infrastructure through the City Accelerator.

old bridge
The third cohort of the City Accelerator, which formally kicks off April 15th in Denver, includes four cities that need to finance improvements to vital, but often overlooked infrastructure. St. Paul needs to come up with an overall framework and strategy for stormwater control for three critical developments. Pittsburgh needs to identify a strategy to fund, finance and deliver improvements to its historic stairway system. The District of Columbia would like to improve a number of infrastructure projects, including street lighting. San Francisco needs to shore up its seawall.

At first glance, these projects don’t seem to have a lot in common. Yet each project involves the kind of infrastructure that stays in the background when everything is going right, and only leaps to front and center in the public mind when something goes drastically wrong. Most of us don’t know (or care) much about how stormwater control works in our neighborhood – but when our basement floods, we quickly become very interested! Street lights and stairways are just things that are there – until they aren’t. San Francisco’s seawall is perhaps the most dramatic example of infrastructure that you don’t really see or appreciate until something happens. As we saw with the levees in New Orleans, the cost of failure is so high that it can be worth a huge investment to prevent it.

Most of the projects in the third cohort don’t involve a single, soaring piece of landmark infrastructure. We’re not talking about the multi-billion dollar New New York Bridge, replacing the Tappan Zee bridge, or even a brand new drinking water plant or solid waste facility. These projects have challenges of their own, of course, but many of the cities are struggling to fund infrastructure networks, like stormwater control structures, street lighting and sidewalks, that are harder to point to and get people to care about until they fail.

Imagine the typical ribbon cutting ceremony on a new building – can you imagine cutting the ribbon on a single street light or a stormwater drain with the same gusto? How do you get stakeholders excited and invested in projects that are less visible, but no less critical? How do you get people to worry (and pay for) the fifty or a hundred-year storm, when it’s not happening today?

How do we fix this -- without waiting for the kind of catastrophic failure that brings attention when it’s too late? Telling the story is critical – first, within the city government, so the project elevates to the top among the thousands of priorities in every administration, then among the public and policy makers, whose support is critical for the funding and financing mechanism that are needed to get it done. A good story also counts for a lot among rating agencies, lenders and the capital markets.

Most people think finance is about the numbers – and don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to get those right. But most projects also need a good story to get off the ground. Then, other tools become possible. What can we do to improve our storytelling around infrastructure?

Sometimes taking smaller infrastructure projects and bundling them can improve the story, and make smaller projects more significant. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation helped to fund a bunch of smaller bridge projects into a single, large contract – creating great economies of scale and efficiencies while doing so. The state of Michigan recently engaged in a public-private partnership to improve 15,000 street and highway lights in the Detroit area.

REFRAMING: In Alabama, a historically debt-averse state, voters supported a highway bond because of how the story was told. The Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) could have made the case with statistics on pavement quality, or highlighting how much more it costs to rebuild infrastructure when it’s been allowed to fall into disrepair. Instead, ALDOT identified all the bridges that were in such bad repair that a school bus would have to detour around them. Voters could visualize the yellow school buses turned away from a crumbling bridge, kids delayed from attending school – it created a compelling vision of what the problem was. The Center for Watershed Protection quoted Dru Schmidt-Perkins, who has led campaigns for stormwater utility fees in the state of Maryland, about how framing the language can help. “Stormwater utility fee” is not clear. We need to say what it does and why it is so important. We should be calling it the polluted runoff fee to fund local projects that will clean up local streams and reduce flooding.”

SELLING IT (LITERALLY): You know you must be telling the infrastructure story well when people literally buy into it. Start-ups like (named for “in our backyards” – the opposite of NIMBY, not in my backyard) are helping people literally get invested in their communities – by assisting cities in crowdfunding local projects with a good story. Neighborly, a new municipal finance platform, is helping people feel connected to projects in their communities by facilitating the purchase of infrastructure bond issuances by committed citizens wanting to improve the community.

Over the next 18 months, I’m excited to see what innovations our four cohort cities will add to this list of tools for telling the story – and delivering these vital projects. Stay tuned for more stories to come…

Jen Mayer leads the City Accelerator's cohort on planning and funding urban infrastructure.

Leader of the City Accelerator's cohort on planning and funding urban infrastructure