Infrastructure for the 21st Century

The Rebuild With Us campaign urges congress to address the massive funding gap with sustainable and resilient solutions

By Irma Esparza Diggs

America has a serious, growing infrastructure problem, and it will take the sum of our nation’s parts to solve it. The National League of Cities (NLC) is a voice for the more than 19,000 American cities, towns, and villages—and that voice is calling out for cleaner water, sturdier bridges, a better equipped workforce, and an all-round safer, more secure future for our communities.

NLC’s Rebuild With Us campaign urges Congress to pass a comprehensive infrastructure package that addresses our nation’s water, transportation, broadband, and workforce infrastructure needs for the 21st century. Together with local leaders from across the country, NLC is calling on the federal government to partner with cities, towns, and villages to fund existing programs and make significant capital investments for the long- term benefit of the economy.

Local leaders are innovating at the ground level and piecing together the funds to pay for our share. Since 2016, local communities and states have approved nearly $250 billion in investments to modernize local infrastructure. In 2016, local governments spent $123 billion on water and sewer infrastructure alone, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Each component of our nation’s infrastructure crisis must be addressed head on. As Congress works to develop an infrastructure proposal, there are six broad categories of challenges that cities face with regard to water infrastructure:

  • Aging Infrastructure – Our water infrastructure is beyond its 50-year life span, and some infrastructure is over 100 years old.
  • Unfunded Mandates – Cities, towns, and villages face an increase in federal and state unfunded mandates, with limited fiscal resources and state preemption on local ability to raise revenue.
  • Affordability – Low-income households pay a disproportionate amount of their incomes toward water bills.
  • Climate Change Impacts – Climate change will exacerbate current infrastructure challenges and create new challenges around water quality and availability.
  • Pollution and Contamination – Be it lead, nutrients, PFAS, or pharmaceuticals; cities, towns, and villages are charged with providing clean and safe water.
  • Aging Workforce – One-third of water and wastewater utility workers are eligible for retirement in the next decade, far exceeding workforce replacement needs in other sectors.

Cities, towns, and villages across the country are adopting innovative solutions to address these challenges. San Francisco, for example, has a combined sewer system that is 100 years old and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is undertaking a 20-year, multi-billion-dollar upgrade. The project will provide a range of community jobs, including entry-level opportunities to access careers in the construction trades and over 800 staff hired in the next five years to fulfill the job needs of capital improvement projects. San Francisco is committing to the operational reliability of the water and wastewater utilities, while preparing a diverse and skilled workforce.

Cities are tackling community resilience and disaster preparedness as well. Flooding on the Iowa River in 2008 caused unprecedented damages in Coralville, Iowa. Over 200 businesses and 400 households were severely impacted, leading to over $7 million in damages to the city’s infrastructure. Following the flood, Coralville identified a comprehensive plan for permanent mitigation measures to protect low-lying areas. The city has pursued $73 million in federal and state funding for these projects, which include permanent and removable flood walls, raising streets and bridges, and storm water pump station improvements. As of 2018, Coralville has completed its plan for permanent flood mitigation.

We need to build on key water infrastructure wins from last Congress like the Water Infrastructure Improvement Act and America’s Water Infrastructure Act. And so, NLC is calling on Congress to improve our nation’s water infrastructure by passing legislation like H.R. 1497, which would reauthorize and increase funding for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, an essential tool for communities to provide clean and safe water for residents and businesses.

Infrastructure stands as one of the few nonpartisan issues in our political arena. Leaders at the local level know there is a long Congressional to-do list, but communities cannot continue to rely on short-term fixes. For a federal infrastructure package to become reality, we need leadership in Washington to define how we will move forward and answer the trillion-dollar fund- ing question around rebuilding and reimagining our nation’s infrastructure. The investments we make today in infrastructure should be forward looking, sustainable, and resilient to address today’s needs and those of the 21st century. Postponing action is not an option.

Irma Esparza Diggs is the Senior Executive and Director of Federal Advocacy for the National League of Cities. To learn more, please visit nlc.org.

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