Smart Infrastructure Investment

By Annise Parker*

Cities across America are facing a looming crisis caused by a failure to adequately invest in critical infrastructure. The water crisis in Flint was clearly a failure of leadership, but it was equally a failure to maintain a public infrastructure system necessary to sustain life. Ten years ago, we were having a related spasm of national outrage over the New Orleans levees that failed during Katrina.

Metropolitan areas are the platform on which 85% of Americans build their lives and entrust their futures. The word “infrastructure” may be handy shorthand, but it covers a huge part of what makes the modern world possible. In cities, infrastructure includes complex networks of roads and bridges; airports, ports and railroads; electrical grids; water and sewer lines; dams and levees; public buildings; solid waste facilities; and wired and wireless connectivity. In fact, underfunded pensions and the failure to maintain our infrastructure are the two biggest challenges facing American cities today.

Deferred maintenance is not just a problem, it is the default mode of governments. A new project is built and then is allowed to decay. There are a multitude of reasons why. No governmental body ever has as many resources as needs and must choose among competing priorities. Every newly-elected official runs on promises of bringing new capital investments into his or her district, generally some highly visible and popular form of vertical construction. Horizontal, or underground, infrastructure is easy to put off because there are no quick fixes, much of it is not visible and it’s not as “sexy” politically. Setting aside appropriate funds for routine maintenance or renewal and replacement of that new edifice is even more difficult.

But, the reasons to invest in infrastructure are compelling, even beyond the fact that water and sewer systems are necessary to maintain public health. These project are critical to commerce and the movement of goods. These projects are job creators, both during and after construction. Put simply, they drive economic development.

I’ve seen the comments of naysayers claiming that the rising call for investment in the built environment of America is simply a way for bureaucrats to justify their jobs. My response is simple: go to any big city in America and look for yourself. Visit an air traffic control tower and discover which generation of technology controls movement in our skies. Tour a water treatment plant and look at the vintage of safety testing systems. Walk under older bridges with a good flashlight and look at the support structures. Follow a public works backhoe as it digs up a crumbling clay sewer pipe.

Five years ago, I joined with the Houston engineering community to develop a revenue source for street and drainage investment. Thanks to voter approval of a new drainage fee, our ReBuild Houston initiative was born. I also added a budget line item where 2% of annual capital spend could be accumulated for replacement. Clear and consistent communication worked – the what, why, cost, benefit, and oversight structure.

Yes, these projects cost money. But, what is the cost of allowing them to continue to decay?  Public support for public works investments is possible, but we are not yet having the conversation. Too many politicians are afraid to acknowledge that sometimes you get what you don’t pay for.


* Mayor Annise Parker served as Mayor of Houston, America’s 4th largest city, from 2010 to 2016. She is currently a Fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

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