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American Mayors Prioritize Tech Issues for 2020 Election

Transportation infrastructure, water and sewer systems, clean energy and data policy are among the recommended focus areas on the just-released 2020 policy agenda of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

by Andrew Westrope / December 5, 2019

An association of America’s mayors has announced its priority issues for the 2020 election, and it put transportation, wastewater systems, clean energy tech and digital government on the shortlist.

In a 32-page “call to action” released Wednesday, and in advance of a presidential candidate forum the group is hosting on Friday, the U.S. Conference of Mayors outlined context and recommendations for a dozen focus areas for voters and candidates to consider. These ranged from civil rights issues to immigration reform, affordable housing, the tax code and climate change, but four focus areas hinged on technology.

In a conference call with national media, USCM President and Mayor Bryan Barnett of Rochester Hills, Mich., said the report built on policies that USCM supported in the past. He said 99 mayors, including Republicans, Democrats and independents from every geographic region in the United States, saw or contributed to the document, which went through a senior USCM leadership and about a dozen different committees for input and approval. The group has historically issued a policy agenda on the year before each presidential election, and this one urges that the next president focus on three I's: infrastructure, innovation and inclusion.

Barnett pointed out that with the clock ticking on issues like infrastructure and climate change, and with crippling gridlock in Washington, D.C., it’s up to state and local governments to get things done.

“The value of mayoral leadership has never been higher. We know this because data shows that the public trust is highest at the local level,” he said. “We believe that cities bring people together, that they drive economic growth, that they’re the place where culture is created, and where innovation is really harvested and incubated. They are the center of American life.”

Mayor Stephen Benjamin of Columbia, S.C., echoed that sentiment.

“This is a golden age of local leadership,” he said. “There’s never been a greater time to be an American mayor.”

Among USCM’s 2020 agenda items were the following technology initiatives:

Reimagine and Modernize the Nation’s Transportation Infrastructure

The agenda asks the next president and Congress for immediate action to plan for regional mobility, reducing congestion and improving air quality. It stresses the need for public investment, and not just in urban areas, to compensate for years of underfunding at the federal level. It says underfunding led to the deterioration of airports, roads and bridges nationwide, which has already cost taxpayers extra money in the long run because of maintenance and delays. The report says overall investment in infrastructure as a share of gross domestic product is still declining, but cities have raised their revenue commitments faster than federal and state partners.

Mayor Elizabeth Kautz of Burnsville, Minn., said mayors have been leaders on the issue of infrastructure for the past several years, but they need federal support.

“We know that there are no Republican or Democratic roads or bridges. Good waterways, pipes and efficient airports have no party affiliation. And no issue unites average Americans like the need for better infrastructure, and yet, so much remains unfulfilled,” she said. “We need to secure the Highway Trust Fund, support local projects through surface-transportation block grant programs, support public transit investment, support innovative new technologies that promote mobility like autonomous vehicles and hyperloop, (and) invest in modernizing American airports. There is a deep well of political support for all of these ideas, and we are ready to be a strong partner at the local level to help drive the agenda.”

Specific recommendations in USCM’s policy agenda include:

  • securing the Highway Trust Fund, first established in the 1950s to fund road construction and mass transit
  • directing more highway dollars to programs like the Surface Transportation Block Grant to support local officials
  • making public transit investment a priority
  • rewarding cities for curbing fossil-fuel emissions and promoting transit-adjacent housing
  • updating local regulatory agencies to deal with emerging technologies, like autonomous vehicles or hyperloop pilots

For airports, USCM wants the feds to direct more money from the Federal Aviation Administration to local airport capital projects, and stop repurposing money collected at port facilities for other government expenses.

Invest in America’s Water and Wastewater Systems

According to USCM, replacing water service lines nationwide will cost $27 billion-$48 billion, and as the residents of Flint, Mich., can attest, the work is already late.

To address this problem, mayors want the next president and Congress to:

  • increase federal funds, specifically grant money, for water and treatment systems
  • implement the Integrated Planning Permit law, which would allow cities to plan for the integration of wastewater and stormwater management
  • change laws to let cities have 10-year, instead of five-year, terms for treatment works permits
  • fund studies of capital investments
  • support federal credits for plumbing upgrades on private property
  • boost funding for new programs such as the water workforce development grant

Fight Climate Change by Accelerating Clean Energy Use

USCM regards fighting climate change as a global imperative, and cities as the “best laboratories for innovation.” The group’s 2020 agenda says buildings account for 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, so that could be an ideal place to start. USCM is asking Congress and the president to:

  • give money to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program for supporting things like alternative fuels and EV charging stations
  • write policies to make buildings carbon neutral
  • launch a national strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions
  • recommit to researching hydropower at the Department of Energy
  • expand tax credits for EV purchases
  • support policies that accommodate offshore wind energy
  • develop policies for landfill management, including the reduction of single-use materials and the development of markets for recyclables
  • give money to redevelop the nation’s estimated 400,000 to 600,000 sites containing hazardous materials

Embrace Modern Technology While Protecting Consumers and Cities

The USCM’s agenda praises cities for being pioneers in digital government and data, but from the feds, it asks for:

  • cooperation to develop data standards for security and access
  • financial and technical support to protect elections
  • support and deregulation for cities to test new technologies
  • reversal of previous actions by the Federal Communications Commission that give local government property to national communications companies

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