10 Steps Cities Can Take for More and Better Infrastructure

With our national infrastructure in dire straits due to aging and neglect, most Americans agree that we can no longer watch our cities, towns and communities struggle with failing bridges and transit, lack of flood protection and storm resilience, and tainted drinking water.

To help address these issues and their intersection with the growing climate crisis, NRDC has led a cross-disciplinary effort to explore opportunities to generate more and better infrastructure investments to build communities in the 21st century.

Our research has found that rather than focusing on infrastructure as an expensive, ongoing crisis, we can systematically capitalize on infrastructure improvements as a driver of multifaceted and equitable transformation and growth.

We’re calling this approach High Road Infrastructure—a concept designed to deliver social, environmental, and climate resiliency benefits, including greater equity within and between communities, cleaner air and water, quality jobs, improved health, and the ability to withstand and recover from stresses caused by severe storms and extreme temperatures.  Critically, High Road projects yield savings in operations and maintenance over time and promote financial, social, and environmental sustainability.

We have laid out the approach in our framing paper Taking the High Road to More and Better Infrastructure in the United States, the related video—High Road Infrastructure – Forging a New Vision—and now in a new paper, The High Road Handbook: 10 Steps for Cities Seeking to Implement More and Better Infrastructure, we’re describing the nitty gritty steps it takes to carry it out.

Multiple Advantages

We have found that the private sector is increasingly accepting of the “triple bottom line” in business, giving equal weight to long-term social, economic, and environmental outcomes. These companies are finding that this is less risky and more resilient than a traditional approach that simply maximizes short-term profits. For the public sector, the traditional approach to infrastructure aims to minimize upfront front cost. The High Road approach applies long-term, holistic thinking to public sector decisions.

Our strategy for infrastructure is based on an inclusively created long-term community vision, which the handbook outlines in specific terms. We pay particular attention to the preparation that must occur before the first shovel hits the dirt.

The handbook is designed to help stakeholders navigate the High Road predevelopment process, from conceptualization through design and procurement. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we reexamine existing approaches through a High Road lens and provide a 10-step road map to accelerating and improving projects that meet urgent community needs.

Beginning with Step 1, which is the creation of an overarching policy framework, we apply a broader set of standards that place High Road projects at the head of the project pipeline and then maximize the chances for their full implementation. This is done through project design that values High Road objectives over least-cost solutions, creative-yet systematic interaction with funding and financing sources, and smart procurement strategies.

The 10 Steps

The process includes:

Step 1: Establish Community Priorities Within a High Road Policy Framework

High Road infrastructure is about incremental, yet profound systems change—moving from a siloed system focused on minimizing upfront costs, to a holistic one bounded by long-term resilience and adaptability and economic, environmental and social sustainability.  For this to be possible, there must be a clear framework that articulates a vision that is grounded in and derived from community engagement and that is enforced by a commitment to implement from the top—the mayor, the head of the agency or the CEO of an implementing utility.  Accompanied by a methodology for metrics of success and sustainability, this creates a dynamic of accountability from the community and the political leadership.   

Step 2: Prioritize High Road Projects and Define Project Delivery Alternatives

Step Two uses the standards set out in the policy framework to transform the project pipeline. The general process is to run projects through a locally adopted High Road scoring system based on the policy framework established in Step One. Projects that make the grade are put at the front of the line. Projects that don’t must be re-designed to address gaps in the social, environmental, and resilience standards established by the framework. Upfront cost is an important factor, but a High Road methodology incorporates future savings as future revenue and values resilience, environmental and social benefits. The chart below exemplifies such a methodology:

An example of analyzing and prioritizing projects in accordance with High Road standards (scale of 1-5 with 5 being the most favorable)

Step 3: Identify and Screen Applicable Funding Sources

Step Three aligns the High Road projects with traditional and non-traditional funding sources.  Traditional sources include direct revenues, grants, value capture, municipal borrowing, low-interest government-subsidized loans, tax credits, and private capital. Non-traditional financing options for public projects include green bonds, social and environmental impact bonds, and recent federal programs like the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). The handbook also discusses new frameworks for public-private partnerships.

Important High Road elements for this step include:

  • Counting funding in the form of future cost savings as future revenue, especially in energy efficiency projects or undertakings that have lower operation and maintenance (O&M) costs;
  • Combining multiple revenue sources to support different elements of a project;
  • Bundling non-revenue generating projects with revenue-generating projects where possible to lower average costs; and
  • Aligning funding sources to deliver community benefits early in the project lifecycle wherever possible.

Step 4: Identify and Screen Relevant Finance and Project Delivery Strategies

This step should produce an overall financing and delivery strategy for initial capital investment, long-term debt repayment, and operations and management (O&M).

Traditional financing strategies operate in discrete and sequential steps, emphasize lowest capital costs (with potentially higher O&M costs as a result), and often fail to prioritize non-revenue-generating activities even when they are important from a community’s perspective. The High Road approach, on the other hand, is iterative, evaluates costs from the more realistic life-cycle perspective, and seeks ways to preserve elements critical to the community’s vision even if they are non-revenue generating.  Some projects may be aligned with a single funding source, while others may require funding from several sources.

For delivery, the High Road approach looks at the full spectrum of possible public and private collaboration—from “Design – Bid – Build” to “Build  - Own – Operate.” Determining the best option for the project and for the community requires an assessment of trade-offs and an understanding of the desired levels of public control, risk and engagement.

To get the better projects, a High Road is iterative, creative and non-linear.

Step 5: Identify and Screen Procurement Mechanisms

This step refines project financing and the procurement approach based on the strategies identified in Step 4. Sequencing is important here. If the primary funding opportunity includes grant funds or state revolving funds (SRF) or WIFIA loans, the funding request should be timed to coincide with other projects to be submitted for such loans, given annual funding limits and the application cycles for those programs. If long-term funding includes a private delivery and finance track instead of a municipal bond offering, the lead agency will develop a procurement strategy to engage private teams.

High Road performance standards should be incorporated into bid documents and the bid scoring and evaluation process.

Step 6: Identify Specific Target Investors

While some projects will have started to identify potential investors already, this step accelerates those efforts. As they target general obligation or revenue bonds, agencies should also consider packaging and certifications to elicit investors interested in green or social bonds. Likewise, agencies should consider their projects’ potential appeal to the full spectrum of private investors, including impact investors, private equity, and pension funds.

Step 7: Identify Project Bundling and Aggregation Needs and Opportunities

This step involves the lead agency exploring options to package projects to enhance attractiveness to investors. This is primarily relevant for private investors interested in opportunities in the range of $150 million or more. When agencies need to issue a general obligation bond or revenue bond offering, it can be useful to bundle different projects or aggregate similar types of infrastructure assets to get to investible scale or reduce the cost of non-revenue generating assets through lowering transaction costs through economies of scale.

Step 8: Conduct Technical Studies to Confirm Viability

Some technical evaluations are needed to support preceding steps. For example, the processes defined in Step 2 will require planning, engineering, and pricing/cost estimation studies. Step 8 addresses additional, detailed financial/implementation feasibility evaluations that may be necessary, depending on the financing strategy and target investors.  

Step 9: Finalize Project Sponsor/Investor Plans and Arrangements

At this stage, agencies develop detailed execution plans based on project planning, engineering studies, and financial and delivery technical analyses. To secure funding through traditional municipal mechanisms, costs should be incorporated for High Road projects into the capital improvement plan, rate studies, and budget plans. This ensures their inclusion in specific bond issues or State Revolving Fund tracks and then finalizes the necessary bond prospectus documents to secure private finance and delivery, administer RFP or RFQ processes, or negotiate with a single private entity, based on the procurement approach. It is critical that High Road goals remain embedded throughout or they will not be achieved.

Step 10: Close the Deal and Develop Implementation Plan

In the final step, project teams need to execute required construction and operation agreements. Regardless of the financing and delivery method, projects should have an implementation plan that defines the responsibilities and time line. The plan should also stipulate how to track and verify the delivery of both the public service objectives and the High Road goals.

Conclusion

Infrastructure based in climate reality and built with an emphasis on benefiting people holistically will not only improve mobility, create better access to clean water and green energy, grow local economies, and help renew our global climate leadership, but also will help create a green consensus by making our communities more resilient, supporting fair-wage jobs, improving health, and helping address income disparity, segregation, and entrenched poverty.

High Road infrastructure and revitalization can also create savings, enhancing the finances of our homes, towns, and cities. This framework can align local political goals and inclusively engage diverse sets of stakeholders, encouraging more direct participation in community-building. High Road goals should be insulated from “politics,” as the term is usually used, but encourage political participation. It takes a little more planning and a few more resources, but that extra mile is worth it for the good of the people and the economy. And if national climate legislation comes, as expected, communities that have adopted this approach will be ready to benefit and lead the way.

For more information on NRDC’s High Road Infrastructure work, including a video, go here.

About the Authors

Douglass Sims

Director and Senior Advisor, Green Finance Center, Resilient Communities, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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