The Power of Public Infrastructure Innovation

Posted by Eileen Neely on

The 34-minute power outage at this year’s Super Bowl left 73 thousand people stuck inside the Superdome during an infrastructure failure. Coming so soon after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, maybe this event will prompt a serious conversation about the state of our nation’s neglected public infrastructure and how to update it.

One of the most pressing challenges facing states and municipalities today is the quality and capacity of public infrastructure—the water systems, schools and municipal buildings, transit systems, and other core assets upon which we all depend. The links between well-functioning infrastructure and economic growth are well documented.

Inadequate or failing public infrastructure disproportionately hurts low-income people. As we saw in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and New York and New Jersey after Superstorm Sandy, low-income communities are more often located in the flood-prone sections of cities, resulting in prolonged health issues associated with flooding from mold and moisture. In New York City, when public transportation failed, transit-dependent low-income residents could not get to work and because they are not salaried, could not earn wages.

The disparate impact is not only experienced during crisis. Public infrastructure plays a vital role in enabling people to access opportunity. Inadequate public transportation limits low-income households’ access to jobs and other amenities which are increasingly located in inaccessible suburbs.

In a time of tight government budgets, traditional techniques of relying on the public sector to finance, build, and operate infrastructure will not meet our country’s needs. Innovative approaches to infrastructure investment are required. Finding ways to leverage private resources are critical. Yet, some early attempts to forge public-private partnerships for infrastructure relied on wholesale privatization, and overlooked the public good.

The best solutions for addressing the infrastructure demand will draw on the best attributes of the public and private sectors, combining them in ways that leverage their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Living Cities has begun exploring innovations in the field of infrastructure, and we are learning a lot from places that are developing new approaches to addressing our pressing infrastructure needs:

Managing storm water runoff: Potholes and deteriorating bridges are easy to see; a failing storm water system is not. Storm water runoff is generated when precipitation is not absorbed into the ground, but instead flows over impervious surfaces (paved streets, parking lots, and building rooftops), accumulating debris and chemicals along the way. In 772 U.S. cities, storm water runoff, residential sewage, and industrial wastewater are collected in the same pipe for transport to a treatment plant. During heavy rain, however, these systems overflow and discharge polluted wastewater directly into waterways. Whereas the traditional approach to managing storm water would involve developing specifications for new pipes and water treatment plants, Philadelphia’s innovative approach instead looks at the result it wants to achieve – reducing storm water runoff. Thinking about the desired result instead of the specs opened up opportunities for innovation. The resulting strategy, Philadelphia’s Green City, Green Waters program, utilizes green infrastructure — such as rain gardens and roadside plantings — that mimics the way nature collects and cleanses water. Recognizing that to be most effective green storm water initiatives must be undertaken on private land as well as public land, Philadelphia has taken the lead among cities nationwide by establishing a storm water billing structure that provides a very significant credit for property owners who can demonstrate onsite management of the first inch of rainfall over their entire parcel. Philadelphia’s fee and credit structure and the incentive it creates for private property owners to install storm water retrofits complements the city’s Green City, Clean Waters program. Involving both the public and private sectors in addressing the issue will result in a much more comprehensive solution.

Centralized Infrastructure Expertise: Reviewing potential projects, prioritizing competing demands, identifying the best approach to take for infrastructure initiatives, and structuring deals to attract private investment are complicated tasks that require a set of skills not readily available at most municipalities and states. Without these skills, public agencies will persist in business as usual. To fill the capacity gap, the State of Oregon is exploring the creation of a state center of expertise to provide technical assistance to public sector entities, including state agencies and departments, counties, cities, and other municipalities. Still in the evaluation stage, this effort is guided by an Executive Order and includes a review of the successful model developed by Partnerships BC which provides similar services in British Columbia, Canada. A grant from Living Cities paid for Partnerships BC to advise the Oregon Governor’s office. Adapting Partnerships BC’s model to the US will help accelerate innovative infrastructure approaches. All the documents created for Oregon, including the business plan, job descriptions, and project screening criteria, will eventually be publicly available so other jurisdictions can adapt the approach for their own use.

America’s needs for expanding and updating our public infrastructure are so vast, and their implications for ensuring shared growth for all and better opportunities for low-income people so significant, that we can not put this work off any longer. We are impressed by innovative solutions being tested in Philadelphia and Oregon, and we are eager to learn about other efforts, ranging from new technologies to new partnerships to new financing mechanisms, underway across the country.

What innovations are you seeing that hold promise? Share them here or email me at eneely@livingcities.org

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