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U.S. Cities Offer Guideposts for Federal Infrastructure

A new report from Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research surveyed infrastructure projects in more than 100 major U.S. cities and argues these should be the starting place for federal strategy.

Photo of the Pittsburgh skyline with a chain in the foreground.
Pittsburgh, Pa.
Flickr/Jaime Dillen-Seibel
MetroLab Network has partnered with Government Technology to bring its readers a segment called the MetroLab Innovation of the Month Series, which highlights impactful tech, data and innovation projects underway between cities and universities. If you’d like to learn more or contact the project leads, please contact MetroLab at for more information.

In this month’s installment of the Innovation of the Month series, we highlight a report, A Bottom-Up Infrastructure Strategy for American Renewal, that presents a new infrastructure framework and digital tool, and argues for the need to involve local leaders in the design of national infrastructure plans. MetroLab’s Ben Levine and Josh Schacht spoke with the architects of the report: former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio Henry Cisneros, and the Director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research and former Mayor of Ventura, Calif., Bill Fulton.

Ben Levine: What was the motivation for this project and who has been involved in it?

Henry Cisneros: Our report is based upon an inventory of the 100 largest cities and 100 largest metro areas in the U.S., matched with the graphic technology to make infrastructure projects easily accessible. It is a joint enterprise of the Kinder Center at Rice University and my office (formally, the office of Henry Cisneros, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development).

In important periods of American history, the nation has made significant advances because of large-scale infrastructure commitments. Often mentioned in this respect are the transcontinental railroad, the interstate highway system and the post-war infrastructure to support modern urbanization. At other times, the nation’s investment has lagged and, in some cases, resulted in suboptimal projects. Our report was motivated by the following two responses to those unfortunate and wasteful approaches to infrastructure investments.

First, we believe that including state and local leaders in the design of a national infrastructure plan is essential. Local officials are generally in the best position to know the projects that would be the most impactful and effective in their respective areas.

Second, as the nation has become more urban and the nation’s economy becomes more dependent on urban areas, logic dictates that it is the economic development of metropolitan areas and their surrounding regions that should be supported with the infrastructure of the future.

Cover of a report titled "A Bottom-Up Infrastructure Strategy for American Renewal."
Josh Schacht: What was your approach for collecting and managing so much data from so many sources?

Bill Fulton: The raw data on metropolitan infrastructure was collected from four sources:

First, a written survey of the infrastructure priorities of the 100 largest U.S. cities and the 100 largest metro areas, with a combined 134 local respondents. Second, a compilation of the major infrastructure priorities of those same cities and metros derived from their documented capital improvement programs. Projects with budgets over $10 million and with build-out periods of five years were determined to require infrastructure capital spending as opposed to general fund expenditures. Third, we collected telephone and email exchanges from local officials, including mayors, city managers, budget directors, public works directors, planning directors and strategic planning officers. And finally, we used public record media clips of significant infrastructure plans in the selected metropolitan areas, including newspapers, magazines, press releases, published reports, industry periodicals and regional publications.

The raw data was compiled by infrastructure categories and metropolitan areas. Recognizing that it is complex to classify 134 local areas, 22 contiguous regions of the nation were presented as the basis for regional planning, in order to define areas that share economic, topographic, demographic and historic characteristics.

Levine: What were the major themes you found across the survey respondents? What are the primary infrastructure priorities across the country?

Cisneros: The survey produced seven dominant categories of infrastructure projects across the nation:

  • Transportation projects (37 percent of all projects) continue to be the primary building blocks of a national infrastructure strategy and should be given high priority.
  • Mass transit projects (21 percent of transportation projects) are vital to the transportation of essential workers and can help reduce carbon emissions.
  • Investment in public facilities (33 percent of all projects) is necessary in older cities and regions with obsolete facilities and in newer regions with rapid population growth. Local and regional government facilities require major technology upgrades. The pandemic especially highlighted the need for health facilities and open spaces.
  • Investment in water and wastewater infrastructure (15 percent of all projects) can help secure clean water for the nation in the long term, but also address emerging issues associated with climate change, including the increasing problem of extreme weather events, whether they involve too much water (storms and floods) or too little (droughts).
  • Energy projects (10 percent of all projects) serving metropolitan areas and regions create opportunities to invest in rural areas and can help close urban/rural disparities in regional employment and economic development.
  • Renewable energy projects make up 53 percent of energy projects identified in this study, signaling that local and regional leaders recognize renewables as both cost-competitive and critical to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Massive public investments in communications infrastructure (5 percent of all projects) are needed to accelerate competitive economic development and to address the wide equity gaps uncovered during the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to those infrastructure types, three general themes emerged from the survey results. The first was essential infrastructure after the pandemic, such as broadband access, emergency response and health facilities, and public transit that serves essential workers. Second, climate resilience infrastructure, such as public transit and renewable energy, which can reduce emissions, and clean-water facilities, which can help mitigate the impact of climate change. And third, infrastructure focused on urban-rural connections, such as broadband, energy and transportation, which can help harness the prosperity of metropolitan centers to enhance economic opportunities in rural areas.

Schacht: Can you talk about the interactive map that was produced using the survey results? Who are the intended users of this tool?

Fulton: We thought it was important to show the geographical distribution of projects, especially across sectors. One of the important highlights of this project is its cross-sectoral approach. Infrastructure is often “siloed” by type, like transportation infrastructure or water infrastructure, especially at the federal level. By creating an interactive map, we could show how regional priorities were different in different parts of the country. The intended users include the mayors and their staffs, but also federal officials in both the Biden administration and on Capitol Hill working on the infrastructure package. We have already provided variations of the interactive map to the Department of Transportation Assistant Secretary for Policy’s Office for use in presentations.

Levine: In what ways does President Biden’s American Jobs Plan align to the priorities identified in your report?

Cisneros: One of the organizing concepts of our report is that prospective infrastructure projects should be judged on the basis of how they advance the U.S.’s objectives in dealing with the principal challenges before the nation. The report highlighted six urgent challenges. These six are very much the same as the stated themes undergirding President Biden’s American Jobs Plan:

  1. Economic Recovery from the Pandemic: The pandemic has created hardship for tens of millions of Americans, mostly those with modest incomes.
  2. Racial Inequity and Economic Mobility: Together, the pandemic and the renewed interest in racial injustice have highlighted how persistent racial concerns are and how difficult upward mobility has become for most Americans.
  3. Geographic Dispersal of Opportunity: Even as our cities and metropolitan areas prosper, our rural areas are struggling economically, falling further and further behind.
  4. Global Competitiveness: The United States is in danger of losing its premiere economic position in the world.
  5. Digital Transformation: New technology has opened the nation to new possibilities. But, as the pandemic showed, in critical areas such as schools and medical care, the growing digital divide has made it difficult for many Americans, both urban and rural, to benefit from these advances.
  6. Climate Change: Climate is the biggest overarching challenge the world faces today and holds the potential for significant population and economic disruption.
The report points out that each of these challenges has “an inextricable relationship with our physical infrastructure systems.” We believe that infrastructure alone is not a solution to even one of these challenges, but infrastructure can be part of the solution to every one of these national challenges.

Schacht: Based on your findings, what action would you like to see the federal government take? How can federal action best support local priorities?

Fulton: The federal government is on its way to addressing the primary imperatives for a national infrastructure plan: organizing a joint congressional and administration package and identifying the mechanisms for funding it. After that, the traditional congressional committees and cabinet departments will likely fund infrastructure through the traditional channels, which include grants-in-aid and loans.

Our report suggests that several steps should be embedded in this traditional pathway. One is that state and local priorities for essential projects be given weight in project selection. And two, efforts should be made to integrate funding across the traditional silos of highways, mass transit, clean water, wastewater, energy, communications, airports, seaports and waterways in order that comprehensive local jobs and economic goals can be coordinated.

Ideally, this kind of prioritization and integration could occur in White House and interdepartmental forums. A White House infrastructure council composed of the requisite cabinet departments and supported by a coordinator from, for example, the National Economic Council, could be one model for achieving this level of coordination on the ground where infrastructure must be effective.

A “war room” could be organized to receive, organize and interactively update a national inventory of state and local infrastructure priorities. It would be the first national inventory of this type and it would have long-term usefulness to the federal departments, including as an instrument to set the stage for inter-departmental cooperation and intergovernmental collaboration. The ultimate objective should be to assure that infrastructure projects can be integrated in “place-based” frameworks so that they maximize their positive effects.
Ben Levine serves as executive director of MetroLab Network.
Josh Schacht is the director of technology and strategy at MetroLab Network. He works to support MetroLab members and the civic research community as a whole in promoting evidence-based policy and local community engagement. Prior to his role at MetroLab, Josh was a solutions architect on the Master Data Management team at Katerra, working to leverage sustainable building materials to create efficient and affordable housing.<br/><br/>