Presidential Vision for Infrastructure Up for Debate

September’s presidential debate tees up an opportunity for the candidates to showcase their vision for the infrastructure we want and need as a country

By Joe Buscaino

For the second time in 15 years, America’s cities, towns and villages are confronting financial devastation. The COVID-19 pandemic has left reserves depleted, revenue forecasts in tatters and local leaders wringing their hands about how to keep the lights on.

These new fiscal challenges also exacerbate and exponentially compound long-standing issues—like infrastructure—which have suffered from decades of disinvestment. Most city budgets are reeling from the pandemic, and without Congressional emergency funding, cities continue to face significant unexpected expenditures to keep services running—like purchasing personal protective equipment, running drive-thru testing and contracting disinfecting services—to keep their communities safe and healthy as the country learns to live with COVID-19. The National League of Cities’ newly released City Fiscal Conditions report shows that the pandemic’s immediate economic effects have left 90% of cities less prepared to meet the fiscal needs of their communities moving into 2021.

It is the hope of America’s cities, towns and villages that during this debate we will see a clearly defined vision not only for the future of our country, but also for the future of our nation’s infrastructure.

Cities face significant restrictions on raising new revenues, and so they are turning to options of last resort, including spending down reserves, furloughing employees and pulling back on capital and infrastructure projects. Severe budget shortfalls forced a reported 65% of cities to delay infrastructure and capital items their communities sorely needed. While necessary due to the unprecedented economic circumstance our nation faces, cutting infrastructure further impacts local employment, business contracts and overall investment in the economy, which moves communities farther away from recovery.

While cities have stepped up to fill the gaps in infrastructure spending over the past several years, with depleted local budgets and a national scorecard of Cs and Ds across almost every type of infrastructure, it’s clearly time for a national vision for infrastructure that works across America.

Voters are going to the polls for the 2020 presidential election in less than two months, and we need to hear from our candidates on how they will tackle the state of the nation’s infrastructure in their first 100 days in office. Much of our nation’s infrastructure is in desperate need of repair, but improvement and modernization to meet today’s demands have been relegated to the national to-do list for far too long.

From small towns, to my home of Los Angeles, infrastructure is one of the greatest opportunities to begin to reshape America’s competitive advantage. Infrastructure is also a perfect opportunity to create desperately needed new jobs. The vision for how to rebuild and reimagine infrastructure can be accelerated by visionary presidential leadership. The good news is that cities are willing to be a true partner to get this done.

Cities are committed to rebuilding together with the administration and Congress because our nation’s recovery depends on making these investments and creating a skilled workforce. We need a federal partner who will work with local governments to rebuild and fully fund the nation’s transportation network, better connect our regions, and innovate through useful technology and sustainable solutions.

Priorities for these investments should include rebuilding and modernizing our water systems in a way that makes communities safer and more resilient in the face of extreme weather events, and ensuring that all communities have access to clean and safe drinking water. In this time of distance learning, households and small businesses need reliable, affordable broadband access, especially in small and rural communities.

On September 29, the nation will be tuned in to the first presidential debate. The timing could not be more perfect because the debate coincides with the expiration of the nation’s transportation programs, and the Highway Trust Fund — which supports these federal programs — will be on the brink of insolvency after years of spending down its reserve without new funding sources. It is the hope of America’s cities, towns and villages that during this debate we will see a clearly defined vision not only for the future of our country, but also for the future of our nation’s infrastructure.

Joe Buscaino is president pro tempore for Los Angeles City Council and president of the National League of Cities. Joe is a first-generation Italian-American and represents Los Angeles’ 15th Council District which stretches from Watts to the Port of Los Angeles.