Governors have long been among the nation’s loudest advocates for pouring concrete. Interstate highways? New bridges? Major development projects? They love it. When a huge pot of federal money opened up as part of the 2009 stimulus package, states were eager to get their share of the cash and push it toward pet projects, shovel-ready or not.
And that’s what makes it interesting to see mayors taking the lead on transportation spending. At an event Monday in Boston, the U.S. Conference of Mayors launched what it says will be the largest coordinated campaign by mayors in some time, pushing Congress to reauthorize the surface-transportation bill and to increase funding for local and state infrastructure projects…
All of that combines to create a situation in which mayors, rather than governors, can take over the dominant role in pushing for transportation spending. Of course, mayors have plenty of concerns of their own, especially in big cities. Major bridges like the one that collapsed in Minnesota in 2007 worry them, as do crumbling urban highway interchanges and failing subway systems. Here in D.C., a major parkway was snarled for much of Tuesday after crumbling masonry fell off a bridge into the roadway. Some of the mayors who are most involved in pushing for more infrastructure money are Democratic mayors in Republican-led states—like Kasim Reed of Atlanta.
The article suggests this is primarily a political Republican vs. Democrat question with Democratic mayors pushing for things that Republicans at the national level don’t support. But, I think this ignores another factor: these mayors are at the level of government that is closest to some of these issues. For them, infrastructure is not an abstract concept but rather more often about specific projects that can enhance life in their city. It is the difference between saying “America’s bridges are in trouble” versus “Boston needs an underground highway in order to free up land, improve traffic, and reduce pollution.” And Americans tend to like local government as they see it as more responsive to immediate needs. Governors can lobby for particular projects but they also have to keep in mind the concerns of multiple actors, which might even up pitting cities against each other for limited funds (i.e., is LA or San Francisco more worthy of a major transportation project). Mayors like the applicable projects that they can point to as real change. (An odd thought to throw in here: dictators often like to memorialize themselves with large-scale planning efforts that will outlive them. When municipal power is concentrated in the hands of a single figure, such as a powerful mayor, is a similar process at work?)
While the mayors may be closer to the infrastructure issues, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can get things done. What kind of clout do mayors have when there are other layers (like governors) to contend with?