Brookings: We Need Regional Leaders’ Input on Infrastructure

According to new research from the Brookings Institution, U.S. infrastructure policy must start with a clear understanding of what regional leaders need – and not just infrastructure agencies, but also the business leadership and community groups that all collaborate to build competitive, inclusive and resilient economies.

Brookings surveyed 16 leaders from 10 metropolitan areas to build that information base. These regional leaders include those serving in transportation departments, water utilities, chambers of commerce and other economic development bodies. 

Rather than emphasizing infrastructure sectors in isolation or fixating on specific projects, the survey asked respondents to identify broader regional planning and investment challenges, and highlight where federal policies and funding have limited action. They also asked respondents to suggest potential solutions, including areas for greater federal-regional collaboration.

As federal leaders craft a new vision, the responses they received are evidence of the immense opportunities to empower regional officials:

  • Regional leaders are confident in their assessment of local infrastructure needs and how to orient their investments and operations to drive inclusive economic growth and environmental justice.
  • However, federal policies often restrict regional leaders’ abilities to act on these assessments and bring their visions to reality. The lack of flexible federal funding limits their capacity to accelerate many programs and projects, while regional capacity issues restrict their ability to execute transformative projects. Insufficient federal support for nationally significant assets can also force regional leaders to spend outsized time and effort on maintaining and upgrading the related assets.
  • Moving forward, regional leaders want more direct relationships with federal leaders and to test new approaches with them. Respondents offered evidence as to why a mix of competitive grantmaking and outcome-driven funding would enable them to better support healthy, sustainable growth.

Taken together, these findings affirm the potential of a 21st century infrastructure vision designed and executed by both federal and regional leaders. Many regional leaders already coordinate with each other on infrastructure and economic development planning, and Congress and federal agencies should work together to help communities bundle federal funding to grow these efforts. 

Congress should also give federal agency officials the authority to test new regional planning and project grants over sustained timeframes, like an update of the Sustainable Communities Initiative’s competitive planning grants. 

Finally, federal leaders should increase investment in nationally significant projects – especially interstate projects such as the Brent Spence Bridge in Cincinnati, the Gateway Program in the Northeast, and energy transmission systems – that are currently overtaxing the communities who host these assets.

The results of this survey suggest that there is considerable alignment between the priorities of regional actors and the federal government when it comes to infrastructure, but federal policies and funding restrict collaborative work and, therefore, shared outcomes. Federal actors should continue to have a direct dialogue with local leaders to discuss the potential to build toward a shared vision of American infrastructure.

Brookings concluded that these survey responses offer at least two clear areas for action. 

  • First, Congress should create greater flexibility in terms of funding recipients, qualified uses of funding, and planning approaches at a regional level. Federal legislation should also enable agency officials to experiment with multiyear competitive grant pilots. Any major bills should also appropriate significant funding for nationally significant projects, which, in the case of the Gateway Program or interstate electricity transmission lines, may be dramatically underfunded.
  • Second, federal agency officials should start convening regional leaders – including those across business, civic, and infrastructure communities – to explore how new rules can support long-range regional goals and allow metropolitan leaders to coordinate multiple federal funding flows. Those could include new planning concepts such as environmental justice metrics, economic mapping, or coordination techniques with state partners.

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