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The Route to Infrastructure that Benefits Communities

States and localities will need the full range of tools to recover economically. That calls for federal policies that tap infrastructure-building's power to boost local jobs and small-business growth.

As coronavirus infection rates continue to spike across the country, we are still struggling to grasp the impact that COVID-19 will have on all facets of our economy. Exactly what kinds of federal help local governments and states will need most when work starts up again is hard to forecast. Stimulus spending will be essential, and whatever the mix of recovery programs, it's critical that infrastructure — with its high job-creation rates, competitive wages and opportunities for workers with less formal education — play a major role.

But to really recover, we're going to need something more than a boilerplate infrastructure plan. Looking back at past decades, there are too many examples of neighborhood-decimating freeway construction, corner-cutting on critical water-supply projects and other infrastructure efforts that were undertaken more at the expense of local communities than for their benefit. The scope of the economic challenges we're now facing calls for new thinking on how to maximize the positive impact of infrastructure spending. How can we do infrastructure smarter?

Local involvement from the people who know their communities will be key to getting the full benefit of post-COVID-19 infrastructure investment. The significance of regional and community involvement is an idea that goes back to the enactment of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956, which launched an era of unprecedented growth for American roadway construction, most notably construction of the interstate highway system. A major impetus behind the Highway Act was the connection between infrastructure and vibrant local economies: Small-business participation was an important consideration, as was job creation.

By the mid-1960s, however, communities around the country were becoming frustrated with poorly planned infrastructure. People began to push back on major roadway construction in their towns and cities — the projects that irreparably sundered poor and minority neighborhoods are by far the most painful to remember — and elected officials were reconsidering the ways in which federal highways were impacting their constituents.

A 1968 report from the Senate Committee on Public Works recognized the importance of a range of economic and social factors, including state and local input in decision-making; better coordination among urban renewal, housing and transportation agencies; and relocation assistance for people displaced by highway construction. As a result, the highway bill that passed that year included language requiring the consideration of social and economic impacts. Congress was learning that good infrastructure policy accounted for the needs and livelihoods of local residents.

Over time, though, the power of state and local agencies to determine what's best for their communities has been eroded. A major change for the worse took place during the mid-1980s: State and local governments were including anti-apartheid provisions in their procurement processes to prevent corporations that were doing business in South Africa from winning contracts funded with taxpayer dollars. Companies protested loudly. In response, the Reagan administration's Office of Legal Counsel ruled in 1986 that state and local governments could not impose anti-apartheid sanctions, saying that protecting the bidding pool to achieve the lowest possible contract price was the overriding factor.

This ruling directly contradicted Congress' intent that federally funded infrastructure projects should allow for social and economic considerations. And worse, it wound up opening the door to Reagan's 1988 Common Grant Rule, which further disempowered state and local governments by denying them one of the key tools they had for maximizing the effectiveness of infrastructure projects: local-hiring requirements. State and local governments had previously been able to create jobs and nurture businesses by including local and regional labor preferences when bidding out contracts. The Common Grant Rule sacrificed those options on the altar of free-market supremacy.

If ever there was a time to retire such nakedly ideological thinking, it is now. State and local governments will need the full range of tools available to recover from this crisis. This means giving them the ability to act as best-practice infrastructure incubators so they can implement projects with local know-how and opportunities.

Supporting federal policies like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Karen Bass' Build Local, Hire Local Act that would give states and communities the full range of tools for this kind of innovation is an ideal next step. Accelerator for America's New Partnership on Infrastructure also provides policy recommendations for empowering municipalities to spur job creation and small-business growth. And most recently, the House passed the Moving Forward Act, which would reauthorize the local-hiring pilot program launched during the second Obama administration but prematurely canceled by President Trump in 2017.

We have begun to understand the compassion, equity and teamwork that we need as we weather the present moment. Let's not miss the chance to enact infrastructure policies that can continue to deliver these values for our communities as we rebuild our economic strength in the months and years to come.

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

National program director at Jobs to Move America
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