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How a New Program is Helping Small Cities Transform Their Transportation Systems

"We don’t want the infrastructure law to compound our geographic inequalities. We wanted it to be an equalizing moment," said James Anderson of Bloomberg Philanthropies.

A groundbreaking new effort to give small cities the tools they need to compete for federal grants is shining a light on how hard it can be to transform transportation outside of America's biggest communities — and how much potential there is to end the national car dependency crisis if mini-metros get the resources they deserve.

Last year, a consortium of organizations lead by Bloomberg Philanthropies quietly launched a sprawling resource called the Local Infrastructure Hub, which provides communities under 150,000 residents with a full slate of "grant application boot camps," peer mentorships, and expert design guidance aimed at making their bids for federal funding as competitive as possible.

Many those grants are now being awarded, and they're poised to unleash a historically unprecedented wave of funding on whichever cities and towns are lucky enough to win. What with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, James Anderson — head of the Government Innovation Program at Bloomberg — estimates that $400 billion in federal dollars were made available for cities and regions to access directly, and that much of the money can be used for transportation reform. 

The only question is who will get it — and who will be left out.

“What we've been hearing from the grassroots of America’s communities was, 'Oh my gosh, D.C. finally sees us,'" Anderson added. "But there was also this sense of, 'Even if they say all this is for us, at the end of the day, all of the money is just going to the big cities; it’s not worth putting our foot forward.' ... And what we were hearing from the federal government was similar: that everyone was really concerned about the capacity of smaller communities to find and compete for the right grant opportunities to help meet their goals. We saw a real opportunity to step in.”

Anderson stressed that the only thing greater than the structural challenges facing small-city Americans is their potential to catalyze a national transportation revolution — and that without them, it's simply not possible to make real progress on our collective transportation goals, like ending car crash deaths and taming climate change.

“We’re increasingly recognizing that our economies are regional, our transportation systems are regional, and our workforces our regional," he adds. "You certainly can’t solve all of New York City’s woes by working exclusively within the boundaries of New York City. This hub connects big cities with smaller ones that depend on each other in ways big and small. And big cities learn from smaller cities, too; so much of the breakthrough thinking that happens in smaller cities, and innovations influence the thinking in major cities.”

Those innovations, though, often happen in the face of daunting obstacles. In the 15 months since the hub first launched, Anderson's heard countless stories about tiny towns struggling to attract and retain the talent they need just to keep the lights on, never mind submit grant applications that beat out world-class metropolises with decades of big grant victories under their belts. Some small town staffs are so overburdened that they struggle to even start their applications until a few weeks before the deadlines, or struggle to compile the kind of robust crash data that DOT wants to prove the safety projects they're funding are saving lives.

“In one or two small communities, the fire department was in charge of submitting grant applications," Anderson recalls. "Most of these small communities don’t have dedicated teams devoted to writing [these apps]. They don’t have the muscle memory of responding to federal grant opportunities. And they don’t have access to the end kind of expertise that a New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles can count on every time they do this. That’s one thing I’m relaly proud of with this program; we’ve taken the best mission-based organizations across the country and kind of socialized their expertise.” 

Allentown, Pa. staff participated in some of the earliest Hub bootcamps.

Anderson and his colleagues were careful to present that expertise in a format that even the smallest and most over-burdened city government can take full advantage of. Of the 620 communities that have participated in 12-week Hub bootcamps so far, Anderson says 77 percent have under 50,000 residents, and a 44 percent have fewer than 10,000. And many of those participants have participated in courses on how to compete for Vision Zero and equity-focused programs like the Safe Streets and Roads for All and Reconnecting Communities, smashing the stereotype that small town America simply doesn't care about things like ending traffic violence and healing neighborhoods torn apart by transportation infrastructure.

The fight to end car dependence, though, can look very different in practice at a mid-sized city scale. Local officials in Allentown, Pa., for instance, are exploring a project to reimagine a series of one-way streets that were originally designed to get motorists to the downtown shopping district as quickly as possible — until that district shuttered its doors 25 years ago, leaving behind a dangerous maze of fast roads with little congestion to slow drivers down.

Allentown mayor Matt Tuerk. Photo: Atwngirl, CC.

“When you talk about 'Reconnecting Communities,' everybody thinks about cities like Tusla and the way that large investments highways divided a community," added Allentown Mayor Matt Tuerk. "But projects don't have to be that massive. Sometimes a small project can address a real barrier.”

Even as the mayor of one of the larger cities to participate in the initiative — Allentown has a population of about 126,000, according to the 2021 census, and is the third largest city in Pennsylvania— Tuerk says his community has still sometimes struggled with staffing challenges, and has had to fight hard to get its needs prioritized by the regional and state agencies through which most transportation dollars flow.

He credits the Local Infrastructure Hub with helping them build the capacity to navigate many of those barriers, as well as "improv[ing] our narrative, our visibility, our organization, and our ability to communicate all of that to the feds." That's not at all to discount the talent that his staff was already bringing to the table before Bloomberg was in the picture, though.

“It’s not a lack of creativity on behalf of any individual; it’s just that two head are better than one, and 30 heads are better than five," he adds. "Especially in really small cities, when it’s just the mayor and the town manager thinking through these design challenges, that’s where having this Hub available can be such an asset.”

If cities like Allentown or their smaller peers in rural communities can access more federal money now, Tuerk is hopeful they can someday reach for more ambitious goals, like their long-held dream of restoring a rail connection to New York City. And Anderson is certain that as those kinds of wins pile up, the country on the whole will take notice.

"Almost every major global problem runs right downhill to the steps of city hall," added Anderson. "We are asking local governments to do more and more, but we haven’t made a commensurate investment to help them do it ... This is an opportunity to bring more communities into the mainstream of the American economy, to reduce the number of places that have been left out and left behind, and [enhance our] sense of being one nation, and one community.”

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