Capitol Hill Forum Highlights Federal, State, Local Roles in Infrastructure

On Tuesday, February 13, one day after The White House released details of President Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan, the co-chair of the CSG Transportation & Infrastructure Public Policy Committee, Rep. Andrew McLean of Gorham, Maine, traveled to Washington, DC. He participated in a panel discussion at the U.S. Capitol on the continuing importance of the federal-state-local partnership on infrastructure and met with Maine’s U.S. Senators, Susan Collins and Angus King. Below are highlights and photos from the day’s events.

The Federal-State-Local Partnership on Infrastructure

The afternoon briefing on the federal-state-local partnership on infrastructure at the Capitol Visitor Center was part of a series of “Federalism 101” briefings The Council of State Governments and other members of the Big 7 organizations that serve state and local governments are hosting this year to educate members of Congress and staff on a variety of policy issues and the important intergovernmental relationships. The briefings are presented in coordination with the Speaker’s Task Force on Intergovernmental Affairs and the House Subcommittee on Intergovernmental Affairs.

The briefing included remarks by Maine state Rep. Andrew McLean representing CSG, Boone County, Kentucky Judge-Executive Gary Moore representing the National Association of Counties (NaCO) and Takoma Park, Maryland Councilmember Jarrett Smith representing the National League of Cities. NaCO Executive Director Matt Chase moderated the forum.  

“Fixing America’s infrastructure is an almost perfect example of how we can work together and embrace the system of federalism that our constitution set up for us,” Smith told attendees. “Federalism is rooted in the idea that some decisions are better made at the national level, while others should be made at the state and local levels. America’s cities value this concept.”

Federal, state and local governments each have integral roles to play in maintaining the transportation system, Smith said.

“The national highway system that connects the whole country is indeed a national necessity,” he said. “While local connection roads are best handled by states and localities, the Highway Trust Fund is our joint effort to maintain the national system that was built with federal funds. But it is the vitality of the local and state road systems that truly creates a valuable network.”

McLean, who chairs the Joint Standing Committee on Transportation in the Maine House of Representatives and who co-chairs the CSG Transportation and Infrastructure Public Policy Committee, sees infrastructure as one of the key responsibilities of government.

“It’s one of the reasons why I got involved in politics,” McLean said. “There is nothing more fundamental that government does than to provide for the safe and efficient movement of goods and people across roads, bridges, rail lines, airports, seaports. … But in the last 20 years or so we’ve seen a real, significant decline because of the loss of purchasing power as well as the inability to raise any additional revenue.”

McLean said he finds it disconcerting that a nation that used to be known for the things it built is no longer really known for that.

“We invested in the Transcontinental Railroad,” he noted. “We built the Hoover Dam. We built the Interstate system. Things that we couldn’t really dream about doing today. … We made these collective investments because we knew that they were a down payment on our future. We saw opportunity and (came) together to build things that would improve the lot of the average person. These were and continue to be monuments of our collective will and vision. … And while previous generations have constructed these engineering marvels, today we can’t even find the money to maintain them and that’s just sad and very disappointing.”

What is needed, McLean believes, is bold leadership at the state and federal levels to ensure the country remains economically competitive. He said states have been showing that leadership and stand ready to engage the federal government in conversations about infrastructure.

Moore, the Boone County, Kentucky Judge-Executive, has seen firsthand the value of infrastructure investment in making his community economically competitive. Boone County, which has seen its population triple in the last 30 years, is home to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), where logistics company DHL located its Americas Hub and Amazon is building a $1.5 billion Prime Air Hub

“The economic development, the job creation has grown at a faster pace than the residential population,” Moore said. “We’re exploding and trying to keep up with the infrastructure needs that creates. … To manage this kind of growth and to keep up with the economic development opportunities that this is bringing, we need a strong federal partner.”

Having that kind of partner came in handy when Boone County was looking to build a new road across CVG airport, Moore said.

“The state did not have funding for the project,” he recalled. “By working with Congress, by working with our (metropolitan planning organization) in the Cincinnati metro area, we were able to leverage … federal surface transportation dollars that flow through the MPO. We were able to leverage local dollars and we had some private dollars. … We built a $17 million road across the airport that relieved congestion. It added multimodal opportunities that made us a healthier community. But it’s the reason we won the (Amazon) Prime Air project. That road is what opened up the 900 acres that Phase One is going to be built upon.”

Another reason the federal role in infrastructure continues to be important, according to Moore, is that local and state government coffers increasingly are being drained by a variety of other policy concerns.

“We’re already seeing our dollars stretched just to keep up with jail population,” he said. “With the opiate epidemic and what that’s doing to our daily population, we’re going to have to look at expanding our jail in our county in the coming months and it’s millions of dollars. … We’re barely keeping up and in most cases we’re not keeping up with the maintenance of (infrastructure) we have, let alone being able to grow and help the economy. … We need to make sure that we are ready and willing to be able to continue to accommodate that kind of growth and progress and success.”

In many cases the costs of infrastructure are simply too high for one community to handle, said NaCO Executive Director Matt Chase.

“When you look at large-scale projects like the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, that one bridge is $4 billion,” he said. “A typical rural county bridge might be $1 million or so to do a full-scale (replacement). But when you get into these megaprojects, it often outstrips the local resources, which is why we’re always looking for a federal-state partnership.”

Chase said he was pleased to see the inclusion of a program to aid rural infrastructure in the President’s plan because often rural communities don’t have the tax base to bear the entire costs of large projects.

“Our largest county—Los Angeles County with 10 million people—has a GDP of $600 billion,” he noted. “Just that county alone would be the 20th largest national economy in the world. On the flip side, we have Grant County, Oklahoma. … They have 4,500 people in that county. … The county owns 446 federally eligible bridges. One bridge for every 10 people or so. … But their GDP is around $235 million, which is a substantial ratio because it’s (agriculture) and it’s mining so they’re contributing to the national economy far above that 4,500 people who live locally. … And those 4,500 people could never fix those 446 bridges alone without a federal-state-local partnership. … You’re going to find that more and more in rural communities. As natural resources and (agriculture) become more efficient, you’ll have fewer people working in those industries, at least locally.”

Moore said another encouraging part of the President’s infrastructure plan is its focus on streamlining processes to complete transportation projects in less time.

“Time is money,” he said. “Delays are big money. And that is an area where Congress can definitely help us. … We want to be responsible to our environment. We do not want to do anything that would damage the beauty and the quality of our community but we can do that while streamlining the process and the projects.”

McLean noted that in preparing for the briefing, CSG reached out to other members of the Transportation & Infrastructure Public Policy Committee to solicit their input on what they’d like to see in a federal infrastructure package. Among their concerns:

  • There is a need to take a holistic approach to infrastructure investment rather than the patchwork approach of the past.
  • There needs to be greater consistency when allocating funding.
  • States need to have greater control over the funds they receive.
  • Maintenance of existing facilities needs to be emphasized.
  • There needs to be greater accountability for contractors.
  • States need to be able to decide if public-private partnerships are ultimately right for them.

Committee members were split on issues like the possible tolling of interstate highways.

McLean said the interest in infrastructure investment is certainly there around the country and policymakers at all levels of government should take advantage of the opportunity the current conversation presents.

“This is one area of policy that you are seeing a united front on,” he said. “It’s not very often when you have the Chamber of Commerce and the truckers and the unions together on the same issue. You don’t see coalitions like this. Doing this is possible. Fixing our infrastructure and building transformational projects that improve the lives of Americans is possible and we can’t squander this opportunity. I really hope that we take advantage of the conversation that’s in front of us to do something good here.”

McLean’s visit to the Nation’s Capital also included brief meetings with Maine’s two U.S. Senators, both of whom could play an important role as the infrastructure investment conversation moves forward. Sen. Susan Collins chairs the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies while Sen. Angus King is a member of both the Senate Budget and Energy & Natural Resources committees.