Grant Henninger is a Strong Towns member and serves on the Planning Commission in Anaheim, CA. We asked him to respond to the question: If we're going to see a surge in federal infrastructure funding, how should that money be spent? Today, he shares his perspective on the #InfrastructureCrisis currently happening in America and how to make wise infrastructure investments.
This essay is part of an ongoing conversation with local and national leaders about federal infrastructure spending.
The bipartisan consensus in Washington is that the United States needs massive reinvestment in its infrastructure. With this consensus, it is reasonable to expect some form of infrastructure spending and grant bill will be passed by Congress and signed into law by whichever candidate becomes president. The majority of this money will undoubtedly go towards addressing the deferred maintenance to the nation's federally owned and operated roadways, railways, and waterways, but a sizable chunk of money will also likely be made available to states and local government through grant programs. As individuals focused on building our own communities stronger, we should focus on how we can use this decidedly non-Strong Towns funding source to achieve Strong Towns aims in our own communities.
As an organization that is currently #1000strong, we do not yet have the ability to derail the infrastructure money train that's coming down the tracks. Instead of wringing our hands about the unsustainable nature of the funding source, or the continued reliance by our communities on assistance from the federal government, we must identify projects in our own communities that can use this money in ways that will put our neighborhoods on a path towards self-sufficiency. Building Strong Towns projects in our communities will also help nationally. The more money Strong Towns-type projects can secure, the less money that will be available for other communities to continue building in non-fiscally sustainable ways.
As a member of the Planning Commission in Anaheim, California, my role is to ensure new developments in the city create a quality, livable, built environment. This includes making recommendations to the City Council regarding land uses, our transportation network, and building standards. In this role, I'm encouraging the development of Strong Towns-aligned projects that will be able to take advantage of the expected windfall of infrastructure money. By ensuring the majority of City's projects are Strong Towns aligned, Anaheim will be able to spread the money out throughout the City, making small improvements in every neighborhood, and ensuring that if parts of some projects fail, the overall investment improves the City as a whole.
If the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is any guide, which President Obama signed into law a month after being sworn into office in 2009, the Federal government will look for states and local governments that have "shovel ready" projects. To meet this criteria, projects will need to be fully approved, waiting only on funding in order to begin construction. Local leaders, with the encouragement of strong citizens, must identify and approve projects that will strengthen their communities before any infrastructure reinvestment program is approved. Waiting until Congress proposes a law will be too late, this work must begin today.
There are many projects that communities can pursue that will help them become stronger that can be implemented with the forthcoming flood of Federal money. Some examples of possible projects include:
Building out a robust bike networks.
Today, communities can adopt ambitious Bicycle Master Plans that map where bike infrastructure is needed and identify specific projects that can be completed to address those needs. Anaheim is in the process of preparing a Bicycle Master Plan that identifies the missing segments in the City's bicycle network, and prioritizes each segment so there is a clear list of projects the City can tackle once funding is available.
Updating circulation plans so they support all road users.
Turn those stroads into a network of wealth supporting streets! Communities can modify existing standards and plans to reduce the number of arterial roadways so it's clear where and how roads will change, identifying specific projects that are necessary to achieve the new plan. Here in California, each city has a Circulation Element as part of their General Plan, which maps the classification of each street in the city and provides a standard width and number of lanes for each classification of roadway. Today, cities can update these maps and standards to accommodate all road users. (As seen above, Street Mix is a wonderful tool for illustrating these standards.) Updating the plan doesn't need to include anything more than narrowing automobile travel lanes, adding bike lanes, and widening sidewalks. Then, if money becomes available from the Federal government, cities can re-paint and re-stripe every roadway in the city, helping to create a roadway network that supports the health and economic well-being of the city.
Connecting productive places with mass transit.
Today, cities can create a plan for a mass transit network, identifying specific projects that can be implemented to create or expand the community's transit network. Specific projects can include anything from building a light rail or bus rapid transit line, to purchasing additional buses, to building out bus shelters along existing routes to encourage ridership.
Replacing old infrastructure that constrains downtown development.
Many older downtowns are built atop very old infrastructure that can constrain dense, urban, walkable development. For instance, Anaheim has 100 year old sewers in its downtown, which can't accommodate the modern mid-rise mixed-use developments that are currently in demand. Today, cities can identify where these constraints and deficiencies occur and create a plan to replace these old utilities to allow for greater intensity of land uses in the strongest parts of town. With a list of areas that need upgraded utilities, cities can apply for and receive federal grant money to dig up and replace their existing infrastructure systems to allow for greater intensity of development in the downtown cores.
Unfortunately, proposing and approving strong projects will be challenged by the very fact that money will be coming from the federal government. Many will argue for spending the money on unsustainable projects because there is no other way to fund them except through federal money.
This will be a siren song for many local leaders who don't want to lead their communities through changing times, but lead they must. Many communities are facing challenging times, with or without a windfall of federal money. There is a simple choice local leaders will be faced with: Either use this money to kick the can down the road so it becomes a future leader's problem, or use the money to permanently address the issues the community faces, even though that may be a hard sell to existing constituents.
It is better to address the necessary systemic changes now, when money is still freely available from the federal government, instead of waiting until change is forced upon us through a lack of resources. As for me, I'm young enough that I hope to be one of those future leaders. I'll be faced with these changes one way or another. It's better to make those changes today, rather than kicking the can down the road to myself, when the struggle to change will be harder but more urgent.
Read more from our #InfrastructureCrisis campaign, including perspectives from local and national leaders around the country.
(Top photo by Willie Fineberg)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Grant Henninger is a life-long resident of Anaheim, CA. He is currently serving on the Anaheim Planning Commission and previously served as Chair of the Anaheim Community Services Board. Grant is committed to making Anaheim a lovable place, and not just home to the Happiest Place on Earth. Grant is also very active onStrong Towns' discussion forum, Slack, so if you want to get to know him, that's a great place to start.