Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Opinion: Local Infrastructure Hub is an idea whose time has come

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As mayor of a mid-sized city on the front line of energy sustainability, I don’t expect instant gratification. Success isn’t defined by a major ribbon cutting, or a fleet of shiny new electric buses parading through town. Wins are incremental. They are neither sexy nor immediately visible to the public.

In Columbia, success means improvements like new transformers and circuit breakers for our “bus barn,” the terminal where our city buses sleep at night. It means seeding our community with charging stations in hopes they spur an increase in electric vehicles use. Yes, it means if we build it, they might come.

Before I became mayor, I was Columbia’s sustainability manager for 11 years. That mission — to meet my city’s energy needs without sacrificing our climate future — has been engraved in my DNA.

In 2019, we adopted a Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. It set goals for reducing more than a third of our community greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, reaching zero emissions by 2060. As part of that effort, we must cut our own municipal operations emissions in half by 2035 and reach zero emissions by 2050.

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Congress and the Biden-Harris administration have given us that opportunity. Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, we are making strides toward our sustainability goals. A $23 million grant will upgrade our bus barn to accommodate an expanded electric municipal fleet. A $3.6 million grant will increase our network of EV charging stations and, importantly, let us engage the public to learn what it takes to complete this evolution.

Money alone, however, is not enough. We are a city of 128,500 people with potholes to fill, laws to enforce, traditional services to maintain. More than one in five of our residents live in poverty. And we face a housing shortage. We do not have the capacity — the dedicated grant writers or data crunchers — to pursue our long-term ambitions on our own.

For guidance, we turned to the Local Infrastructure Hub. It’s a philanthropic coalition pioneered by Bloomberg Philanthropies with support from the Ballmer Group, Emerson Collective, Ford Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, National League of Cities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Results for America and Delivery Associates. The Local Infrastructure Hub supplied us with the bandwidth to imagine, apply for and execute this historic investment in our nation’s infrastructure, through webinars, bootcamps, and one-on-one training sessions.

It’s an ingenious idea. Bootcamp data tools helped us strengthen our application by pinpointing a charging station just across the street from a neighborhood tract the government has identified as disadvantaged. Even more useful was the network of knowledge the Local Infrastructure Hub provided. My successor as the city’s sustainability manager, Eric Hempel, became part of a Missouri cohort, enabling him to have conversations with fellow civil servants in St. Louis, Kansas City, Webster Groves and Fulton.

These alliances and weekly gatherings with experts and peers offer a large return on investment. Yes, we could hire consultants to help us obtain federal dollars. But teaching our city engineers and managers how to write competitive grants and showing them what works in other municipalities has given them confidence to undertake more projects. As the proverb goes, Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.

Missouri is known as the Show Me State. It’s a motto that reflects our practical yet skeptical worldview. As a result, some of my city’s initiatives are hard sells. I make a point of thanking my state and federal elected officials when we get government assistance for our projects. I seldom hear back. But I want them to know the money is having an impact locally, and hope they will support future funding like this because it does come home.

I believe in “possibility government,” a concept advanced by Mitchell Weiss, a Harvard Business School professor and senior advisor and affiliate faculty of The Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, housed at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard, which I have been privileged to attend. The proposition is simple: Public leaders should pursue innovative programs, even if they might only possibly work. It’s about a willingness to try because there is long-term potential. I might not see results when I’m in office, but my kids will, and their kids will, too.

The Local Infrastructure Hub has become an essential tool for local governments like mine. Congress and the Biden administration made a bet that modernizing our country means empowering cities and towns to act on their dreams and their urgent needs. But when the philanthropic community bolsters that commitment, the possibilities are endless.

Buffaloe is the mayor of Columbia, Missouri.

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