Despite President Donald Trump’s promises to “fix our inner cities” and invest in urban infrastructure, American cities have spent much of the first year of his administration worrying about how his policies might contribute instead to their unmaking.
Would proposed cuts to HUD and the Community Development Block Grant program send the affordable housing crisis into overdrive? Would sanctuary cities be hit with punishing cuts to federal funding? Would the elimination of the national Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit leave landmark buildings to languish?
The Republican-engineered tax overhaul signed by Trump just before Christmas is expected to make life more difficult in big cities, but so far, many of the gravest threats to specific urban development programs have failed to materialize. And in many places, voters turned out to support local bond initiatives that could help cities invest in streetscape improvements, transit infrastructure, affordable housing, bike lanes, and upgrades to parks and open spaces. The wave of support for these initiatives signaled that city dwellers see the value in making long-term improvements to urban infrastructure, and are willing to invest in it.
In May, San Antonio voters approved the biggest bond package in the city’s history. The $850 million package was split into six separate ballot questions, representing investments in streets, bridges, and sidewalks; drainage and flood control; parks and recreation centers; libraries and cultural facilities; public safety facilities; and “neighborhood improvements.” Each question was approved by at least two thirds of voters.
San Antonio has been selling bonds on a five year cycle, with a $550 million issue in 2007 and $596 million in 2012. Of the six investment categories targeted in the 2017 bond issue, streets, bridges, and sidewalks will get the most money by far, with $445 million. The funding covers 64 projects, from street repavings to pedestrian improvements to bike lanes.
Also included in the bond issue is a $20 million investment in affordable housing. The “neighborhood improvements” bonds will allow the city to acquire and clear property in certain neighborhoods and sell it to private developers, who will be required to include some reduced-rate housing as part of their projects. The city is facing an unmet demand for at least 150,000 affordable housing units, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Voters in fast-growing Denver showed up for a ballot measure in November that would generate $937 million for infrastructure investments. Nearly half of the investment will be set aside for transportation and mobility projects, which also got the most support at the polls. Those projects include 33 miles of new sidewalks and $18 million for citywide bike infrastructure, including new protected bike lanes. The bond sale will also fund a renovation of the Denver Central Library and improvements to 47 parks, according to the Denver Post.
In Dallas, voters approved 10 ballot questions that together represent a $1.05 billion infrastructure investment. More than half the package is dedicated to 1,027 projects that will bring improvements to city streets, including repavings, bridge repairs, new sidewalks, and street lighting. Around $30 million is dedicated for “Complete Streets” makeovers. The city’s network of bike lanes and trails will also be bolstered by the bond issue, along with $50 million from other sources, according to a local NBC affiliate.
The portion of the bond effort dedicated to parks and trails grew after the city convened a citizens task force to sort through individual project proposals, as Next City reported in July. The projects were based on a “needs inventory” that the city maintains online. The package also includes $20 million set aside for “transitional and permanent supportive housing to target chronic homelessness, rapid rehousing for the elderly, disabled and families with children and day centers for seamless wrap-around services.”
In September, Oklahoma City voters approved 13 separate bond propositions representing a $967 million investment over the next ten years. The program, known as Better Streets, Safer City, also includes a permanent quarter-cent sales tax increase aimed at public-safety investments and the temporary extension of a one-cent sales tax to raise $240 million for street improvements over 27 months.
The investments—and the tax measures—were supported by Mayor Mick Cornett, a Republican who is reportedly planning to run for Oklahoma governor in 2018. Cornett, who is in his fourth term, was also mayor the last time the city carried out a major bond initiative, with a package worth $835 million approved by voters in 2007.
Earlier this year, a community survey of Raleigh, North Carolina, residents found that while nearly everyone thinks the city is a good place to live, almost half of respondents said that traffic flow on area roads was poor or below average. Then in October, voters approved transportation bond package worth more than $200 million. The investment, which includes road repaving and restriping projects, pedestrian improvements, and a project meant to create safer pathways for kids walking and biking to school, was supported by the Chamber of Commerce and a local planning advocacy group.
It passed despite opposition from the Wake County Republican Party and the county Taxpayers Association. The head of the Taxpayers Association announced the group’s outright opposition to bike lanes to the Raleigh News & Observer after the vote, calling them “suicide lanes.” The measure was approved by voters by a ratio of 72-28.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.