Where We Work and Live
America's Counties and the Importance of Infrastructure
Riki Hokama, President, National Association of Counties, Council Member, Maui County, Hawaii
NACo President Riki Hokama on a tour of the Port of Long Beach, Calif. Founded in 1935, NACo is the only national organization representing county governments in the United States. PHOTO COURTESY NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF COUNTIES
TME: As public interest grows for infrastructure to be more resilient and sustainable, what are the most pressing issues to address to incentivize infrastructure owners to spend resources to mitigate structural risks to all hazards?
HOKAMA: Americans rely on public infrastructure every day. When disaster strikes, public infrastructure becomes even more important because of its role in safety and in the ability of communities to bounce back from adversity.
The nation’s 3,069 counties play a critical role in building and maintaining infrastructure and services that help to keep residents safe and connected. We own and maintain 45 percent of the nation’s road miles and four out of 10 bridges. Nationally, we are involved with one-third of mass transit systems and airports. We invest more than $100 billion each year in transportation, broadband services, water systems and public facilities. Counties run most of our nation’s local jails and courthouses, and operate more than 900 public hospitals and countless parks, libraries, firehouses and 911 call centers. County transportation and infrastructure are vital to boosting economic competitiveness, moving our food efficiently and maintaining a strong national defense.
Despite the investments counties have made, we’re faced with aging infrastructure that needs to be upgraded or replaced. For example, the water infrastructure system beneath our streets is old and nearing the end of its useful life. It needs to be replaced, often at a significant cost to local governments. Additionally, state and federal mandates further strain local budgets to the breaking point, but federal options for grants and loans are dwindling. Delaying investment only makes the problem worse, raising overall costs and increasing the likelihood of major water breaks and other infrastructure fails.
In Hawaii, nearly 90 percent of the food we eat is imported—any disruption to delivery puts our food security at risk. Hawaii is not unique in its reliance on infrastructure for food security. Nationwide, some 400-million-T of food move through the United States each year. Investing in county-owned infrastructure ensures that we can get food on tables in all 3,069 counties. We encourage counties to think long-term in their infrastructure planning, addressing not only the needs for today, but for years down the road. As funding options decrease, counties will need to partner more with the private sector to form public-private partnerships (P3), which can help lower infrastructure development and maintenance costs for taxpayers. Planning strategically will allow counties to be better prepared to address future unknown disasters and economic events and to minimize risk.
TME: What are some examples of how your organization is working to improve regional, community and infrastructure resilience and sustainability?
HOKAMA: The National Association of Counties (NACo) has focused on addressing sustainability and resiliency issues, particularly through its most recent presidential initiatives. As NACo’s President, I launched the Transportation and Infrastructure Initiative to strengthen the capacity of county leaders to deliver resilient transportation and infrastructure services to their communities.
This initiative enables NACo to address the county role in promoting investments that support economic competitiveness, improve passenger travel, foster creative partnerships, ensure safety and enhance community quality of life. As part of the initiative, more than 100 county officials from three dozen states participated in NACo’s Symposium on America’s County Transportation & Infrastructure in my home county, Maui County, Hawaii. We released a report, Capital Investments: Counties Drive Economic Development with Transportation and Infrastructure Innovations, which highlights how six U.S. counties are investing in transportation and infrastructure projects.
Last April, the theme of National County Government Month was “Counties Moving America Forward: The Keys are Transportation and Infrastructure.” Counties across the country highlighted their role in everything from daily commutes to the shipping of goods around the world. NACo’s Resilient Counties Initiative focused on working with counties and stakeholders to bolster their ability to thrive amid changing physical, social and economic conditions, with specific attention paid to long-term planning in addition to immediate needs. One critical aspect was recognizing that resiliency planning is not limited to preparing for hurricanes or floods. It needs to include building and supporting great places where businesses want to locate, people want to live and communities can prosper. Counties can and must develop and implement locally driven strategies to foster economic competitiveness.
TME: How will the state and regional collaborative decision-making process impact the economic stability and preparedness of communities, especially since many states, in place of commerce departments, have economic development organizations generally characterized as pseudo-governmental public-private partnerships?
HOKAMA: Counties will continue to drive local and regional economic development, as they have done in the past. More than 90 percent of county governments engage in economic development initiatives. County governments play an essential role in regional development by bringing together local elected officials, members of the private sector, economic development organizations and other partners to collaborate on infrastructure and development projects that drive economic growth through new jobs and commerce activity. In fact, county governments also fund many of these programs that foster quality economic development and infrastructure investments.
P3s are critical for providing safe and resilient county infrastructure. They enable counties to connect with experts in the private sector to meet their infrastructure needs through financing, technical expertise and new and innovative ideas. Miami Dade County, Fla., for example, partnered in 2013 with IBM to implement its Intelligent Operations for Water program, which enabled the county to upgrade its water meters and infrastructure to capture and analyze data that would allow it to better understand water usage. With this project, Miami-Dade County expected to save nearly 8-million-gal of water and $75,000 to $100,000 in water and operational costs each year.
In addition to P3s, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program provides funding to states and localities to improve housing and living conditions and expand economic opportunities for low and moderate income persons. Counties use the flexibility of the program’s funds to partner with the private and non-profit sectors to develop and upgrade housing, community and economic development, and water and infrastructure projects.
TME: What are some good examples from across the country of how community and/or regional partnerships can play a productive role in planning for and the operation of sustainable and resilient infrastructure?
HOKAMA: A great example is from Minnesota, where five counties in the southern part of the state partnered to reinvest in a 94-mi regional short line railroad. Carver, Redwood, Renville, Sibley and Yellow Medicine Counties, which form the Minnesota Valley Regional Rail Authority (MVRRA), secured $6.4 million in federal, state and private funding in 2002 to rehabilitate and restore service to the line. This provided agricultural companies and farmers the ability to transport agricultural products to market.
With service restored, in 2009, MVRRA received another $2.5 million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $5 million from the state to fortify tracks to support trains traveling at higher speeds. The rail line has been a boon to the local economies of the five counties—contributing $3.2 million in economic output, creating new jobs, and keeping the counties competitive in the national and global agricultural market. By working together, these counties have been able to carry out the necessary infrastructure improvements that keep their local economies strong and resilient.
Beyond regional partnerships, in Maui County, we are seeing how international partnerships can help develop more resilient and sustainable infrastructure. JUMPSmartMaui is a demonstration project between Japan’s New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO), Hawai’i and Maui County that aims to identify how to build a smarter, more efficient electric system that uses renewable energies, such as wind and solar, and supports electric vehicles.
The $30 million project funded by NEDO, when completed in 2016, will produce findings that will help create more reliable energy infrastructure for Maui and many parts of the United States when scaled to the larger grid. In Maui County in particular, this project will help create local jobs, highlight the county as an attractive place for high-tech projects and studies and improve energy efficiency, which will help lower costs for the government, residents and businesses alike.
The I-55/Arsenal Road interchange in Will County, Ill., will improve access to and from the inland port. The county, located 35-mi southwest of Chicago, has over the last decade become a key hub for the transportation and logistics industries. PHOTO COURTESY WILL COUNTY, ILL.
TME: What responsibility does the federal government have in future infrastructure initiatives (such as planning, funding, permitting or regulatory changes)?
HOKAMA: The federal government has a major role in future infrastructure initiatives. It played a critical role in establishing a national transportation system that connects communities across the country, facilitating interstate commerce and linking the U.S. economy to the global marketplace.
As the owners of 45 percent of the nation’s road miles, including a significant portion of the nation’s federal-aid highway miles and 39 percent of the nation’s bridges, counties view state and federal governments as partners in ensuring the security and quality of our nation’s transportation system. If we want a 21st century transportation system, each level of government must invest in transportation and infrastructure.
Counties see the direct impact of federal dollars spent on transportation, and so the federal government remains an integral partner in transportation projects. In addition to moving goods and people, federal transportation investments are major economic drivers for local communities. However, in order to plan and execute large- and small-scale transportation projects, counties need long-term funding certainty and a reliable federal partner.
The most important step the federal government can take is to provide long-term funding certainty, particularly by ensuring the Highway Trust Fund’s long-term solvency and by passing a six-year surface transportation authorization bill to replace the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act. If Congress continues to kick the can down the road through short-term measures, counties and the transportation infrastructure they own will pay the price. When funding needs go unmet, county budgets are strained, projects are delayed, services are cut and local economies suffer the consequences. With the cost of project construction outpacing the rate of inflation, counties cannot afford for Congress to wait.
"As the owners of 45 percent of the nation’s road miles, including a significant portion of the nation’s federal-aid highway miles and 39 percent of the nation’s bridges, counties view state and federal governments as partners in ensuring the security and quality of our nation’s transportation system."
TME: How can the architecture, engineering and construction industry support the infrastructure needs of communities across the United States?
HOKAMA: P3s will continue to be one of the best and most important ways that counties can provide safe and resilient county infrastructure. P3s will strengthen the relationship between counties and architecture, engineering and construction firms, allowing counties to cost-effectively address infrastructure needs.
Buchanan County, Iowa, for example, has worked to improve the infrastructure of county-owned bridges by using cost-effective strategies and innovative technology. The county embarked on several creative partnerships to pilot new methods for bridge replacements using steel and timber, and using decommissioned railroad flatcars for other bridges. In 2013, Buchanan County needed to replace its aging Jesup Bridge to accommodate wider and heavier vehicles carrying agricultural products. The county partnered with the Short Span Steel Bridge Alliance (SSSBA), which had a free online bridge-design tool that allowed the county to save time and money normally spent on hiring an engineering firm to create a bridge design. In addition, a number of SSSBA member companies donated materials for the project.
With the savings from the online tool and donated materials, Buchanan County ended up spending less than $100,000 of the project’s total $250,000 cost. Entering partnerships like this can save counties across the country money while improving efficiencies in upgrading infrastructure
[article first published in the May-June 2015 issue of TME]
Riki Hokama is a Council Member for Maui County, Hawaii, and became President of the National Association of Counties in July 2014. He was first elected to public office in 1978 as a delegate to the Hawaii State Constitutional Convention. Later, he was elected to the Maui County Council from 1999 to 2009 and again in 2011. Hokama graduated from the University of Hawaii with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. The National Association of Counties, founded in 1935, is the only national organization that represents county governments in the United States. It assists America’s 3,069 counties in pursuing healthy, vibrant, safe and resilient counties, while promoting sound public policies, fostering county solutions and innovation, promoting inter-governmental and public-private collaboration, and providing value-added services to save counties and taxpayers money.