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For Transportation Infrastructure, Look to Cities to Do It Right

Some cities are paving the way to getting beyond outdated governance and funding structures, creating viable alternatives to our antiquated institutions for distributing transportation resources.

Modern streetcar at downtown intersection, Portland, Ore.
A streetcar passes through downtown Portland, Ore. (Shutterstock)
2021 brings the promise of a major evolution in our nation's transportation infrastructure. From funding to policy, signaled changes in the interactions between federal and local government will catalyze smarter, cleaner and more resilient transportation solutions. Cities will become more important than ever. As rhetoric from the Biden administration leading up to the inauguration suggested, cities are best positioned to execute this task. Some have already jumped at the opportunity to boldly lead.

President Joe Biden's Build Back Better platform underscores a desire and intention to increase our nation's infrastructure investment. Biden has been a major advocate of intercity rail travel, even to the extent of garnering the nickname "Amtrak Joe." Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor and now Biden's secretary of transportation, understands firsthand the importance of fixing potholes, expanding rail and redesigning streets to better suit people's needs.

This leadership — combined with the upcoming expiration of the FAST Act in September — opens the door to lasting transportation infrastructure change. Many of these solutions will be felt at the city level, but the federal government carries a significant responsibility to strategically guide cities operating with outdated investment and governance models for infrastructure development.

Turning promise into reality — this is the hard part. Cities must advance new rail lines, bike lanes and transit technologies, all while upgrading legacy aging assets like subway and bus systems to meet today's environmental and social conditions. They must do so in fiscally responsible ways that reduce potentially high debt loads that will burden our children. Unfortunately, too many transportation plans and infrastructure ideas are wedded to governance structures built on decades of outdated transportation services in complicated political environments.

A local or state transportation department accustomed to building new roads likely lacks the decision-making expertise necessary to effectively plan, design and construct a rapid-transit bus line, and vice versa. The transportation infrastructure of the future will require a paradigm shift of what is needed in diverse, urban communities and the role transportation must play in addressing broader social imperatives of equity and sustainability.

The city of Austin, Texas, overcame the typically siloed nature of transportation infrastructure through the creation of the Austin Transit Partnership, a local-government corporation responsible for financing, designing and constructing Project Connect, a $7.1 billion transit expansion approved by Austin voters in November. The Austin Transit Partnership pairs a broad mission of facilitating transit-related capital projects that create community benefit with the resources and authority to execute these projects in a complex socio-political local-government environment. Austin's model reflects a growing trend.

This type of specialized organizational model with a broad scope becomes increasingly important as infrastructure development, operations and maintenance grow in scale and complexity. Kansas City, for example, is building a $200 million expansion of its downtown streetcar line through the Kansas City Streetcar Authority, a cross-functional organization specifically formed for the purpose of managing, operating and maintaining the line. In Portland, Ore., streetcar governance models employed a similar cross-functional model to build the city's three streetcar routes over 16 miles. Portland relied heavily on a special-purpose nonprofit entity with the authority and ability to collaborate with developers and align transit-supportive land uses with available capital funds.

Through these kinds of focused nonprofit special-purpose entities or local-government corporations, cities can enjoy greater deal-making agility, enhanced financial stewardship and less administrative complexity than traditional transportation infrastructure development models provide. Critically, a key feature of these organizational examples is the unique combination of flexibility and focus to optimize the public and private investment flowing into projects and communities.

The success of these local-government implementation models demonstrates that viable alternatives to our antiquated institutions exist for distributing transportation resources. Our infrastructure evolution requires new, adaptable and focused organizations that acknowledge and work to overcome previous shortcomings. Cities are already taking the lead in this effort. Transit-focused ballot initiatives had one of their most successful years in recent memory in 2020. Together with President Biden's keen focus on local-federal partnerships, cities have a unique perspective on the nation's transportation infrastructure challenges and prospective solutions.

With proper federal authority and guidance, cities can continue to lead the charge in helping the nation overcome massive transportation infrastructure maintenance, climate and equity challenges. Special-purpose entities working directly at the local level are the key to developing an agile, yet scalable infrastructure model that aligns the built environment with the needs of the community and does so in an equitable fashion.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Principal and co-founder of LDR Advisory Partners
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