In November 2021, the United States House of Representatives and Senate passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, a Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal of new federal investment in America’s infrastructure. This historic bill includes $550 billion in new spending to upgrade roads, bridges, public transit, passenger rail, clean drinking water, broadband, clean energy transmission, digital equity, and other infrastructure systems such as wastewater. President Biden called the bill a “once-in-a-generation investment in America.”
The available funding creates new and exciting opportunities for local governments to tackle infrastructure projects that are long overdue and have the potential for positive impacts on community life. Read on to learn the benefits of the bill and how the funding can be used, and why preparation for projects should include a digital public engagement strategy.
The Legislation Within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal
Transportation and Bridge Funding
Local governments should know that $284 billion of the spending in the bill will go towards transportation, and notably, the bill provides funding levels for the Highway Trust Fund. In addition to overall transportation, the bill provides funding that will help counties cover the cost of bridge maintenance and repair. This is key because 38% of the nation’s bridges are owned by counties.
Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute stated,
“State and local governments, in making choices about policies and projects, will play a major role in determining how the new federal funding is spent. If we want better transportation policy choices nationally, we need to look to state and local governments to set different priorities.”
Benefits of the Infrastructure Bill
This incredible amount of infrastructure funding has a myriad of benefits for local governments:
- Cities can move at a quicker pace to fix aging streets, bridges, and other projects
- Funds can be used on local planning efforts that reflect recommendations from the American Planning Association’s Surface Transportation Policy Guide
- The electric grid can be updated and modernized, making it more reliable and less susceptible to blackouts
- Changes to infrastructure can help prepare communities for the worsening effects of climate change
- Funding is available for National Infrastructure Project Assistance grants. Eligible communities can apply for funding to complete critical large projects that are typically unachievable without assistance.
- Several goals of the plan involve closing racial gaps in the economy such as interstates that split communities of color or addressing air pollution from ports or power plants that affect nearby communities of color.
Considerations that Accompany the Funding
Local governments applying for funds will need to consider that new programs and projects will require more staff. It’s important that agencies prepare for the time and resources needed to hire a variety of positions such as budget experts, construction workers, skilled tradespeople, environmental engineers, and more. A lack of workers could potentially stand in the way of capitalizing on this influx of federal funding.
The Need for Digital Community Engagement on Infrastructure Projects
In the past, infrastructure was often built without community feedback and instead was based solely on what the government agency knew to be true from statistical data and best practices for planning and engineering. While this is the key first part of the equation, the other part involves the people and the how and why behind their experiences in their community. Data such as traffic and accident counts doesn’t yield information on how people want to live and interact in the area, or some of the challenges they may be experiencing.
Infrastructure that is put in place without a community engagement process often winds up costing local government much more in the end. The less the citizens were engaged in the process, the more likely it is that they will be unhappy with the result and will push back on the project after construction or implementation. Additionally, a lack of community engagement on infrastructure projects can negatively affect communities of color. A new roadway dividing neighborhoods and cutting off ease of access to community centers has a negative impact on underserved areas.
When improvements to infrastructure are essential to the overall well-being of a community, digital public engagement helps to empower residents to speak up about how the changes will affect them.
An online public involvement platform eliminates the issue of feedback coming from multiple platforms, offers an efficient way of collecting input, and provides information for data-driven decisions.
What Online Public Engagement Can Look Like on a Major Roadway Project
For the City of Edina, Minnesota, their transportation project, the West 58th Street Reconstruction, provided the opportunity to address long-standing issues that residents encountered in the corridor. Before the City could tackle those issues, they needed to understand what was happening in the project area on a daily basis for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians alike.
This project included complete reconstruction of the roadway pavement, full installation of concrete curb and gutter, partial replacement of watermain and full replacement of water services, improvements to the sanitary sewer and storm sewer systems, traffic signal replacement, and construction of concrete sidewalks.
Through their EngagementHQ digital community site called Better Together Edina, the City of Edina provided project information, Q&A, a feedback form, polls, an interactive project map, and timely updates on construction, paving, traffic signal installation, turf restoration, and upcoming lane closures.
The interactive map of the project corridor allowed for citizens to drop pins in locations along the road, noting the transportation challenges they wanted the city to address. In total, 319 pins were added to the map, providing the city with valuable data about what people experience in the corridor.
Positioning Your Agency to Apply for Bipartisan Infrastructure Funds
The potential for putting these funds to good use in your community is great, so your agency will want to ensure they are positioning themselves as best as possible to secure funds.
Tips for funding application preparation:
- Review your existing capital improvement plans and long-standing project needs lists
- Prioritize your infrastructure projects
- Check long-standing projects against current program requirements
- Consider engaging your community to weigh in on infrastructure priorities
- Explore pursuing infrastructure projects jointly with other jurisdictions. This may increase the appeal of a project and improve your odds of funding success as joint projects are often viewed as having more impact.
- Look for ways to align your list of project candidates with grants and programs identified in the legislation, as well as opportunities for matching
- Refine project scopes and develop supporting details
- Review staffing levels and resources and prepare for hiring if necessary
The funding from this significant federal bill can help local governments maintain, repair, and build new infrastructure projects that will impact the well-being of their communities for decades to come. Along with large-scale community projects comes the need to effectively engage your residents and utilize data-driven planning decisions for which the community has buy-in. Strategic planning for securing infrastructure funds, as well as a solid digital public engagement process, will keep your community moving forward and addressing today’s needs, as well as the future’s.