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Finding the Political Will to Make Big Projects Happen

There’s a reason why we have trouble solving crucial community problems. It’s not an easy one to deal with.

Construction crews work on the collapsed section of I-95 in Northeast Philadelphia in 2023.
Ambitious construction projects can happen quickly, as with repair of a collapsed section of I-95, but only in exceptional circumstances.
Monica Herndon/TNS
The term “state capacity” has been getting a lot of play lately. It’s defined as “the ability of governments to effectively implement their policies and achieve their goals.” And it’s getting attention because American governments seem to lack the capacity to address problems effectively even where there’s a consensus that something needs to be done. This includes responding to high housing costs, building transit lines and fighting homelessness. When we try to build a rail line, for example, it inevitably takes forever and comes at ruinous cost.

I prefer the broader term “civic capacity” to show that it’s not just government, but the entire community that is at play. Several things go into civic capacity, among them mustering the political and civic will to create change; acquiring the necessary skills and competency; and cultivating the resources, especially financial and managerial, necessary to implement the change that’s necessary.

Looking at these, it immediately becomes obvious why, for example, many struggling small towns are unable to change their trajectory. Consider housing. Many small towns face housing challenges, especially where there has been an influx of immigrants. But it’s proven very hard for them to build new housing. Why?

First, even when leaders are forward-looking, these communities have very powerful constituencies, sometimes even majorities, opposed to change, which makes it extremely difficult to approve new developments. Second, these communities, having built little housing in many years, don’t have the expertise or developer base to pull off a large or complex real estate project. And third, they don’t have a lot of money for things like infrastructure and utilities. Many municipalities in America are effectively broke.

An exception that proves the rule is the case of Spencer, Ind. Cook Medical Group, a major employer in Spencer, took the lead in creating a new residential development. They wanted employees to be able to buy a home in this tight housing environment. The market was not supplying new units, and the town government was not able to address the matter by itself. So Cook stepped in to fill the gap.

This solved the civic capacity issue. Nothing creates political will in a community like one of its biggest employers saying it wants something. It helped that the privately held Cook firm is one of Indiana’s most civically minded and philanthropic firms, and thus has a reputation as a good-faith actor. Cook had the ability to easily marshal technical expertise and the financial capital for the project. Thus, the project happened. An actual subdivision has been developed, and some of the first tranche of 90 homes are already built. Cook employees have the first option to buy — at cost. It took a powerful actor like Cook to step in and create civic capacity.

We see the same effect in the infrastructure space after major bridge collapses. All of a sudden, the political will to cut through the environmental rules, baroque contracting requirements and NIMBY neighbor objections materializes.

For example, when the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed in 2007, a replacement bridge opened in just 13 months. More recently, when an overpass on I-95 in Pennsylvania collapsed after a tanker caught fire underneath it, the highway was reopened in just 12 days.

These cases show that we actually do have the physical ability to build high-quality highway infrastructure quickly. It’s just that we don’t have the political will to do so except in extraordinary circumstances. If we were able to solve the political will problem, it would be game-changing for our country.

For rail transport, things are different. There’s a lack of political will here as well. But in this case, America also lacks expertise in how to build and implement rail projects at a global standard. Other countries build and operate transit systems much differently. The Transit Costs Project at the NYU Marron Center has documented some of these differences. American transportation agencies have not been especially interested in learning from international experts, which is one reason that the French rail agency SNCF withdrew from the California high-speed rail project and decided to build a high-speed rail line in Morocco instead (which is already open). But even if American transport agencies wanted to learn from the rest of the world, it would take significant time for them to internalize that knowledge and deploy it effectively in real-world projects.

America’s challenges are not going to be addressed until there’s the civic capacity to do so. Thus, there needs to be a focus on addressing deficiencies in political will, competence and resources. How do we create political will? How do we obtain the necessary skills and abilities? And where can we get the financial resources needed in areas that are fiscally stressed? The communities that are able to do this, as happened in Spencer, will be the ones that set themselves apart in the market.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
An urban analyst, consultant and writer. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @aaron_renn.
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