For those of us who fight for equitable ways to get around, the new year brings new possibility. As America Walks Executive Director Mike McGinn wrote in his year-end letter, the infrastructure bill means “a flood of new money is heading to states, cities and towns.”
But how does that money get directed toward the projects that we want? And how can we divert funding from giant parking structures or ever-expanding highways and freeways?
In our most recent webinar, Mike was joined by an all-star cast of partners, policy professionals, and lawmakers to discuss the future of the infrastructure bill and how advocates and activists can help channel federal funding.
Infrastructure funding: What does it mean for your community?
According to Robin Hutcheson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Safety Policy at United States Department of Transportation, the bipartisan infrastructure “gives us tools that we never had before to address safety, to make walking, biking, rolling more choice mode of transportation.”
“I’m excited about that,” she added.
The bill includes money which is meant to tackle big projects. As it’s laid out, the funds are supposed to improve transit systems, repair aging bridges, and increase access to high-speed internet. The money has yet to be allocated, though, which means local organizations and governing bodies can potentially get some.
But Hutcheson was quick to note that the onus is not be on the federal government alone. Instead, it’s going to be important for local leaders and advocates to get involved.
“We will be calling on our partners to step forward and also take action and double down the way we’re about to double down on safety,” she explained.
Ken Rose, Chief Physical Activity and Health Branch, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at CDC, agreed. Unexpected government agencies like CDC often provide financial support to local projects, acting as partners and sponsors. Rose called the bill “an historic opportunity.”
However, advocates at the local level need to know what to ask for.
“We have made progress. Our recipients [of funding] have led community efforts, coordinated bicycle and master planning… sponsored quick builds and pop-ups and built a strategy to measure success.” he told us. He went on to encourage viewers to consider that “when you look at the infrastructure at the state and local level, the public health sector can be your partner in making sure the best projects are built,” he explained.
Lawmakers are people, too
How, exactly, do local advocates take advantage of these opportunities? Many of our webinar viewers presented questions about the necessary steps to get ahold of funding for infrastructure projects in the new year.
Arlis Reynolds is a Councilmember for Costa Mesa CA, and a member of the America Walks board. She has experience with both sides of this issue, as a lawmaker and as an advocate. She pointed out the limitations on the time and energy of elected officials.
“Many of us have full-time jobs in addition to our elected responsibilities,” she said. “We don’t have staff, so there’s so much that we don’t know about what we should be doing to solve problems.”
As a result, Reynolds says, even well-meaning local electeds might be unaware of critical issues, like walkability, climate change, and equity in transit. When she was first in office, she admitted that she wasn’t thinking much about walkability. But thanks to folks that she met on the campaign trail — folks who sent her books and articles, who had long conversations — she is now dedicated to building a more walkable, accessible city.
“I think it is empowering and intimidating to realize how much power and influence we have at the local level,” she noted.
That power by elected officials needs to be utilized. And most often, the argument is easy to make, according to Louise Lockett Gordon, Director of Bike Walk RVA and a member of the AW board. They just need to be shown how.
“We do a lot of work to teach people how to relate their story to folks like Arlis and Ken and Robin,” says Lockett, referring to her fellow panelists. Lockett’s organization, Bike Walk RVA, specifically helps advocates speak to their lawmakers and help them see a more broad lived experience.
“Everybody’s got a story about walkability,” she says.
Instead of hoping that your city council vies for some of that federal funding, take action to let them know why it matters and who else is on behind you. Tell your story and help make them aware of the experiences of their constituents. Look into which programs and types of funding will be available and come up with some ideas with your local advocates.
Gordon advised viewers to “find a local advocacy group that is working on things that you’re interested. It is much easier to push the levers as a group rather than do it alone.”
Additionally, she said, “your elected officials are people. They are not somebody off in the distance that is untouchable. They have names. So, introduce yourself and tell them what is important to you, because believe it or not, they do the evented to listen.”
Reynolds says a lot of walkability projects are an easy sell because of their broad appeal.
“I think one of the beauties of walkability as a solution is it really does touch so many different areas,” she said.
Hutcheson thinks so, too.
“Every time you improve a street, every time you touch that street, it is an opportunity to make it what you want.”
Learn more about our panelists:
- Robin Hutcheson, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Safety Policy at United States Department of Transportation.
- Ken Rose Chief, Physical Activity and Health Branch, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, CDC.
- Arlis Reynolds, Councilmember Costa Mesa CA, and America Walks Board Member.
- Louise Lockett Gordon, Director of Bike Walk RVA, Richmond VA, and America Walks Board Member.
Check out these additional resources
- Read the memo from Federal Highway Administration Deputy Administrator Stephanie Pollack to state legislatures to focus on accessible infrastructure and non-car-centered solutions.
- Several panelists mentioned “the PCI,” or the pavement condition index. Learn about that here.
- The White House’s website on the infrastructure bill.