My View: City must invest to support infrastructure needs

My View: City must invest to support infrastructure needs
The ship uncovered at Hotel Indigo in 2015 has secured a second grant (File photo)

By Vice Mayor Justin Wilson

When a business wishes to grow and expand, it musters capital and makes investments in new infrastructure and innovation. The same is true for a government that wishes to foster commercial growth to ease the burden on its residential tax payers and ensure existing infrastructure can support current and future residents.

Politicians who pledge to “run government like a business” are ubiquitous across the spectrum. Governing bodies that manage to pair operating efficiency with generous investment in the infrastructure that will support growth are altogether rare. The dustbin of Corporate America is littered with companies that failed to innovate and invest in their future. Local governments must do the same to remain livable, relevant and thriving.

The question before city council during this current budget process and beyond is not whether we raise taxes or not. We must decide whether we should raise taxes this year in order to invest in our infrastructure, or whether we wait and do it next year when it costs more.

The city’s 10-year Capital Improvement Program reads like a catalog of the mundane. Rarely do we cut ribbons when we repave roads, ensure that our sewer capacity meets federal and state regulations, replace HVAC systems that were installed during the Truman administration, replace buses driven daily for a decade and a half, prevent decades-old swimming pools from leaking, or replace tot-lots that today’s high school seniors played on when they were much younger.

Yet infrastructure matters. By nearly every measure, our city has under-invested in infrastructure for far too long. Unfortunately, it shows.

Despite council’s efforts over the past three years to triple the resources allocated to road paving, our backlog remains significant and our roads are substandard.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade to build a new T. C. Williams High School, a new Jefferson-Houston School and the scheduled new Patrick Henry School, our schools remain in disrepair and even the current, expanded, capital budget will be unable to meet the growth of the next several years.

Over $100 million is necessary in spending over the next decade simply to bring the condition of our municipal facilities, including City Hall, up to a “C” grade.

During the past few years, increased funding demands simply to balance the budget of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority have crowded out local funding for new transportation investments designed to ease the burden of congestion on our residents.

Our plans to modernize our combined, sanitary and storm water sewer systems will demand hundreds of millions over the next few decades.

Our plans to improve the usability and relevance of our citywide, neighborhood and pocket parks will demand millions of dollars of new resources.

In fairness, we can put these investments off. While most cannot be cancelled, they can be further delayed. When we do finally get to them, the improvements will be more expensive, the scope will be more extensive, and the cost of financing those improvements more costly. While we wait, our operating costs will spiral upwards.

We have invested in our fiscal infrastructure. We have a balance sheet that is the envy of our region. Our debt is lower than our neighbors, and it is falling. We have zealously protected our AAA/Aaa bond ratings and even imposed new, more stringent debt policy guidelines. Now we must invest in our physical infrastructure too.

It’s time for the paradigm to shift. Rather than simply patching our infrastructure to buy more time, we must make the type of transformational capital investments that will make our city’s physical infrastructure the envy of the region as well.

I hope we won’t pass up that chance again.