Communities around the world rely on infrastructure systems for connections to others, economic vitality, essential service delivery and overall quality of life. When problems within these systems arise — such as assets reaching the end of their useful life, devastation from natural disasters or changing community needs — it requires extensive thought, preparation and funding to make the necessary improvements.
In recent years, the transportation industry in the U.S. has seen a significant shift in funding streams. Major highway infrastructure projects that were once majority-funded by the federal government now require half, if not more, of their funding to come from state or local sources. This shift, coupled with a federal administration transition, means that entities leading infrastructure projects should remain flexible as they deal with changing funding streams and infrastructure priorities. Here are key considerations for doing just that:
- Establish long-term solutions. Once a problem is clearly identified, governing bodies should seek long-term solutions, as opposed to short-term fixes. While these long-term solutions are often more expensive upfront, strategic planning offers a proactive approach to completing infrastructure projects that address the challenge and potentially offer multiple benefits to the community.
- Be creative. Leaders of infrastructure projects should remain flexible in their ideas of what solutions they want to implement and how they might be able to fund them. It is common that funding constraints mean that projects can’t achieve all that was planned, but these projects can still be implemented to solve the problem.
- Spend the time. Grant opportunities, especially federal grants, require a significant time investment. Not only are these applications often extensive, but they often benefit from years of communicating with the grantors on what the local challenges are, what solutions are being considered and which parties are involved.
- Establish partnerships. There are likely multiple parties interested in solving an infrastructure problem. This opens up opportunity for partnerships, whether it is with entities that can help complete the project or with those who can offer additional funding. Even when an infrastructure asset resides in one municipality, neighboring municipalities may be interested in financially supporting the project. Partnerships come together effectively when an infrastructure project has regionwide impacts, such as a major river crossing that is used by residents across numerous municipalities as they live, work and play in the region.
- Diversify funding streams. Departments of transportation and other agencies involved should strive to diversify their primary funding streams, as well as funding for specific projects. At the state level, funding for infrastructure projects typically comes from a fuel tax, portions of sales taxes, bonding and other federal or local match programs. While grants do chip away at the financial burden of a project, they often do not cover the entire cost. Limited sources of revenue challenge a department’s ability to adapt to the latest needs or plan for strategic development.
- Maintain effective communication and credibility. Stakeholder engagement, education and credibility are paramount to identifying infrastructure challenges, developing solutions and gaining financial support. When stakeholders have trust in the governing body to deliver on a solution, there tends to be greater financial support as well.
These creative, flexible and diverse funding approaches allow for projects — such as rehabilitating existing infrastructure and developing new transportation networks — to become a reality.
Future infrastructure challenges should be addressed with long-range plans that look beyond incremental change and focus on emerging trends that will have the greatest impact down the road.