What Over 400 Local Leaders Want to See in an Infrastructure Deal

An L train passes over a city street in Chicago.

An L train passes over a city street in Chicago. iStock.com/Big Joe

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

A new survey of mayors and other local elected officials reveals nearly universal support for certain types of investments. Others, including some Biden administration priorities, aren't as popular.

As the White House and congressional lawmakers try to hash out an infrastructure deal that can attract bipartisan support, a new survey of over 400 local government leaders in cities, towns and counties across the U.S. sheds light on what they want the package to include.

The poll found especially high support—in the 70% to 90% range—in communities of all sizes and among Democrats, Republicans and independents for investments in roads, waterworks, broadband and the electric grid. In other areas, the findings give a sense of how wide the gaps are between officials in different political parties and in larger and smaller communities when it comes to spending priorities.

For instance, among Democratic officials who responded, 73% favored mass transit funding in a public works package. For Republicans the figure was just 35% and for independents 49%. Of the Republican respondents, 28% said they oppose including transit funding.

Other results illuminate partisan divides at the local level in areas that are central to the infrastructure agenda that the Biden administration and Democrats have embraced—like clean energy and electric vehicles, and the importance of using infrastructure programs to address issues related to racial inequalities and the environment.

Seventy-one percent of Democratic respondents said the impact of infrastructure in their community on racial equity is “very important” and 27% said “somewhat important.” For Republicans those figures were 22% and 44% respectively. Similarly, 73% of Democrats said infrastructure is very important when it comes to economic inequality, while only 31% of Republicans expressed that same view.

Survey participants included 413 local government policy makers from cities, counties and townships with populations of 1,000 people or more. The respondents are mayors and other top elected officials and members of governing boards, commissions and councils.

The poll was conducted by the nonprofit CivicPulse in partnership with Stanford University and Route Fifty.

Nathan Lee, managing director of CivicPulse and a public policy professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology, noted that nationwide there are thousands of local governments and that many of them are smaller sized, rather than major cities. The survey, he explained, was designed to accurately reflect this dynamic and the views of officials across this range of places.

“Because there are so many local governments, and many local governments are so small, often their voices are left out in the conversation in D.C.,” Lee said.

“But when you put all these local governments together, they represent a huge portion of the ultimate users of this funding,” he added. “It’s really important to ground truth what their priorities are.”

Roads and bridges are a clear priority.

Overall, 93% of respondents said that they favor road and bridge funding in a new infrastructure bill. Water and wastewater drew the second strongest level of support, with 83% of the officials surveyed saying it’s an area that they favor. After that came the electricity grid and broadband, which both checked in at 73%.

Each of these categories had high levels of support across party lines and among officials who represent places both large and small. 

“Roads and bridges, water and wastewater, there’s nearly universal support for. It’s very bipartisan,” Lee said.

Other findings mixed

Overall, 40% of respondents said they support including mass transit funding in a new infrastructure bill, 39% said they neither favor nor oppose doing so and 21%—just over one-in-five officials—said they oppose including this funding. 

In addition to tracking with party affiliation, support for transit varied with jurisdiction size. In places with 75,000 residents or more, nearly three-quarters of respondents favored mass transit funding. In places with populations of 15,000 to 75,000, the figure drops to 55% and in localities with fewer than 15,000 residents it is just 40%.

“For the smaller towns, somewhat not surprisingly, mass transit was really quite low,” Lee said.

While smaller localities outnumber big ones around the U.S., an outsized share of the population lives in and around larger cities. Gallup polling from 2018 indicates that about 39% of Americans were living in big cities, or in suburban areas around them. Census estimates suggest that about 80% of Americans live in “urban" areas.

“It’s not to say that there isn’t support for mass transit,” Lee added about the findings. “It’s rather to say that support for mass transit is concentrated in larger cities.”

Clean energy and electric vehicles proved to be two of the most divided areas in the survey.

Ninety-two percent of Democrats favored including clean energy funding in new infrastructure legislation but only 28% of Republicans held that view. For independents the figure was 53%. 

With electric vehicle infrastructure, it’s a similar story. Sixty-three percent of Democrats said they support this funding. Just 19% of Republicans and 41% of independents said the same. Thirty-nine percent of GOP respondents said they oppose electric vehicle funding.

Democrats were more supportive of infrastructure funding in general. The lowest level of support among Democratic officials among 11 infrastructure categories the survey asked about was the 63% figure for electric vehicles. For Republicans, there were six categories where 51% or fewer of the respondents favored funding.

The survey also asked about how important officials considered the impact of infrastructure in their communities on areas like public health and the environment. Ninety-two percent of Democrats said the impact of infrastructure was very important for the environment and 87% said the same of public health. For Republicans, the environment figure was 49%, for public health 66%.

State and local governments spend more money than the federal government to build and maintain much of the public infrastructure that Americans rely on day to day, particularly transportation and waterworks. But new infrastructure legislation has the potential to significantly boost the amount of federal dollars going to the state and local level to support spending on these kinds of public works.

A full copy of the report on the CivicPulse survey results can be found here.

Bill Lucia is a senior editor at Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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