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In the Competition for Infrastructure Dollars, Struggling Places Need a Leg Up

Deindustrialized regions, smaller towns and rural areas don’t have the resources prosperous metros have to go after the new federal money. We need to focus on closing ever-widening opportunity gaps.

The LaSalle Rail Bridge over the Illinois River.
An aging railroad bridge over the Illinois River in La Salle, Ill.
Closing the yawning geographic divides in economic opportunity remains a critical priority in the United States, not least because it contributes to the poisonous polarization of our politics.

Larger coastal cities and growing metros like Austin, Madison and Nashville are thriving in a tech-driven knowledge economy, while many older industrial communities, smaller towns and rural reaches continue to hemorrhage population, jobs and futures.

For these communities, the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure package holds promise of new connections to the global economy and a reboot of degraded physical infrastructure, from pitted roads to outdated rail lines to subpar public transit. Which is why it is potentially tragic that the $210 billion allocated in the bill for competitive and discretionary grants may serve to reward better-off, already rebounding communities while smaller, older and struggling places continue to be boxed out.

As a Governing article noted recently, growing and prosperous metro areas have numerous advantages when it comes to securing funds for infrastructure, from experienced planners to community development corporations to influential business groups, along with the more robust fiscal bases that give them a leg up on competitive grants requiring local matching funds. Few smaller towns, rural areas or deindustrialized regions can muster those kinds of resources.

This reality could be particularly damaging in the Midwest, a region with unique infrastructure-related challenges. Home to what on a per-capita basis is the country’s most-expensive-to-repair infrastructure, the Midwest requires unique attention from infrastructure renewal efforts. The region also retains the largest concentration of racially segregated cities, where marginalized communities continue to be affected by the infrastructure-related ills of environmental racism, pollution and contamination.

As the economy becomes ever more reliant on high-speed Internet access, some neighborhoods in urban areas, already unable to access reliable and affordable transportation for family-wage jobs, now face a broadband deficit as well. These neighborhoods are joined by rural and small-town communities that are similarly disconnected from the professional and educational opportunities provided by the digital economy.

To combat this growing geographic inequality, repaired and updated infrastructure-based amenities should train their focus on distressed communities first, where they could make the largest difference, using place-based investments based on need.

The case for place-based investments in distressed communities has already been made by the Upjohn Institute in Michigan, including in the context of federal infrastructure and COVID-19 relief programs. Concentrating on need and economic decline, instead of rewarding communities with mature professional capacities and resources, could help stimulate vital employment growth and reinvigorate distressed local tax bases.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, state and local leaders, and legislators should use what discretion they have in implementing the new infrastructure law to ensure that long-overdue funding of critical infrastructure works to close our ever-widening regional opportunity gaps. Only then will struggling communities and their residents have true opportunities for full economic participation in a changed economy, reducing regional inequality and economic hardship that undermine faith in democracy itself.

John Austin directs the Michigan Economic Center and is a nonresident senior fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Brookings Institution. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @John_C_Austin. Alexander Hitch is a research associate with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He can be reached at or @HitchAlexander.

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