The Age of Crumbling Infrastructure, the ‘Double Deficit,’ and Smart Investment

While the federal government once played a significant role in funding our nation’s infrastructure, the majority of this responsibility falls to state and local governments today

By Nicole DuPuis

Never has infrastructure been so inextricably linked to technological change. Today, advancements in technology are impacting the buildings we use, the ways we get around, and how we live, work, and play. The era of the ‘smart city’ foretells of a future in which every municipal function and pedestrian asset, essentially the bones of every city, will be connected to or part of an internet ecosystem. Smart city systems, autonomous vehicles, and data-driven utility monitoring are just some of the latest developments that are changing the way we think about infrastructure and future investments.

While this wave of technological advancement points to a certain type of a progress for modern infrastructure, it also represents a challenge for municipal officials. Many local governments struggle to keep legacy infrastructure – such as roads, bridges, and water systems – in a state of good repair, which subsequently precludes them from even considering new investments.

While the federal government once played a significant role in funding our nation’s infrastructure, the majority of this responsibility falls to state and local governments today. Thus, we see a sort of domino effect, where limited support from the federal level, combined with constrained state budgets, leaves the buck to be passed down to the local level. This is further complicated by the reality that much of our existing infrastructure is coming to the end of its useful lifecycle. The overall decline in infrastructure investment, rapid deterioration of existing infrastructure assets, and the need for significant upgrades is commonly referred to as the ‘infrastructure deficit.’

The infrastructure deficit is no small hurdle for cities and states. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Infrastructure Report Card estimates that approximately $3.6 billion in investment is needed to get all our nation’s infrastructure up to a state of good repair by 2020. In addition to that monstrous figure, the National League of Cities’ (NLC) research consistently finds infrastructure among the top issues of concern for cities. Most of our nation’s cities are facing overwhelming infrastructure expenses, the majority of which are maintenance related. Filling potholes and keeping water systems running safely and efficiently never stop being priorities for local elected officials.

On the heels of those financial burdens, cities are now feeling pressure to invest in new, smart infrastructure. The expense of this new investment is daunting, and cities are weary about stretching themselves to make large investments in technology-infused infrastructure that could be rendered obsolete or out-developed in the next few years.

This puts a double-stacked burden on cities – one that I’ll coin the ‘double deficit.’ Declining funding, increasing mandates, and misaligned priorities at the federal and state levels have already saddled local governments with the lion’s share of responsibility for legacy infrastructure needs. Now cities are pressed even further to come up with seemingly non-existent funds to invest in new types of infrastructure. And the hype around all of this is significant. Sensor networks and high-speed broadband are requirements in a future that promises autonomous vehicles and fully connected communities. The pressure to get on board with all of this almost feels like a necessity, lest your community be left behind or excluded from the 21st century economy.

There are, however, steps cities can take as they face pressure to invest in new ‘smart’ infrastructure. NLC’s recent report, “Trends in Smart City Development,” makes several recommendations that can help city officials grappling with the best way to approach these new investments:

  • Cities should consider the outcomes they want to achieve. Most cities have a number of long-range planning documents that set forth goals and the resources available to achieve them. The most successful smart infrastructure investments will be those tied to clear goals and objectives, which hopefully reflect the shared values of the community’s citizenry.
  • Cities don’t have to go it alone, and should look for ways to partner with universities, non-profits, and the private sector. Unlike traditional infrastructure, which has mostly been funded via mechanisms like local option taxes and infusions from federal and state sources, smart infrastructure investment will need to be much more diversified. Partnerships provide many benefits to cities, including giving cities access to funding and expertise that might not otherwise be available. Partnerships also allow cities to share the risks of development, which is especially valuable given the evolving and often untested nature of these projects. Finally, partnerships give large-scale infrastructure projects the external commitments and support necessary to render continuity, which might help them to persist through shifts in leadership and political power.
  • Cities should continue to look for best practices and frameworks to guide ‘smart’ infrastructure investment. Advancements in technology are happening rapidly. The lack of agreed-upon principles for redesigning the built environment and the newness of ‘smart’ development means that not much has been codified. This presents a challenge for cities, and local leaders must continually seek best practices and resources – both from other cities and entities, and from partners in their communities – to make the best, most informed decisions.

As city leaders struggle to overcome the effects of the ‘double deficit,’ they will be faced with making the best, most sustainable infrastructure investments for their communities. The rapid pace of change in the infrastructure arena only makes these decisions more difficult. However, city leaders have the advantage of understanding the nuance and needs that are unique to their community. Focusing on outcomes, potential partnerships, and best practices will help cities to forge a path forward and make infrastructure investment decisions that will sustain them in the future.

Nicole DuPuis is the Principal Associate for Urban Innovation in the City Solutions and Applied Research Center at the National League of Cities. She may be reached at on Twitter @nicolemdupuis.

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