“Infrastructure is boring!”

The Covid-19 pandemic has focused the attention of public bank advocates on immediate economic needs: small business loans, municipal finance in the face of a tax base collapse, and how to support the unemployed and vital non-profits, such as hospitals and food banks.

Our 2019-2020 bill, on the other hand, focused on infrastructure, and right now it might feel as if the things that the word “infrastructure” bring to mind, like roads, highways or bridges, are not just dull but almost irrelevant.

But consider this: As in 2008 and after, funding “shovel-ready” projects can be a way of putting people back to work in the face of long-term unemployment arising from business failures. And those projects can also help us prepare for the challenges of climate disruption, a crisis we must face head on and proactively if we’re going to escape disaster.

raingarden

An urban rain garden provides an attractive solution to downtown storm runoff

With green infrastructure, planners, engineers and municipalities have developed practices, and in some places taken political steps, to preserve and enhance natural systems’ ability to keep water clean, improve public health, control noise, prevent flooding, and cool the air.

Curridabat, Costa Rica, is a suburb of the country’s capital, San Jose, and far from wilderness. But the country’s commitment to biodiversity led local officials to think differently about how to manage heat, open space, and biodiversity. If Costa Rica could create biocorridors to connect its jaguar population, why not build greenways in urban areas for people?

As this article details “Curridabat’s urban planning has been reimagined around its non-human inhabitants. Green spaces are treated as infrastructure… Geolocation mapping is used to target reforestation projects at elderly residents and children to ensure they benefit from air pollution removal and the cooling effects that the trees provide. The widespread planting of native species underscores a network of green spaces and biocorridors across the municipality, which are designed to ensure pollinators thrive.” Curridabat’s former mayor even took the step of recognizing pollinators as citizens during his 12-year term.

In most cases we don’t think of infrastructure very much at all until it fails us, or until technology or economic systems force us to think about it in a new way, and encourage investment in new systems (electrification a few generations ago, broadband now), or disinvestment in others (the replacement of streetcar service with privately owned autos). While our immediate attention is focused on getting through the COVID-19 pandemic, we have to keep an eye on climate, rising sea levels, and potential impacts on food, water, and energy. Massachusetts is already reimagining “built” infrastructure to incorporate natural processes, for instance a proposed Widett Circle wetland. Our Massachusetts Infrastructure Bank bill imagines infrastructure in broad, locally-determined terms, leaving room for innovative projects that work with nature—and may make infrastructure a little more interesting to Massachusetts voters and taxpayers.

Whately Selectboard endorse H935/S579

On March 11, the Selectboard for the town of Whately unanimously voted to support H935/S579, An Act Establishing the Massachusetts Infrastructure Bank.

As the board pointed out…

As its name provides, H935 focuses its efforts on mitigating chronic deficiencies in our public infrastructure, including, of great importance to us in Western Massachusetts, farmland preservation, public land management, and even climate change mitigation. These issues are not new to anyone in the Commonwealth, unfortunately, neither is the ongoing difficulty in paying for them. What is new in H935 is the concept of paying for these projects by harnessing the power of our already existing banking system to fund an extraordinary public need.

Whately is a small, rural town where infrastructure projects tend to fall in a “middle need” range, too costly to be paid out of free cash, or through loans from community banks, but not costly enough for bonding. For example…

…here in Whately we have been saving our Chapter 90 funds for years to fund the gap between what we can secure from MassDOT ($500,000+/-) and the actual cost ($680,000+/-) of the Williamsburg Road Bridge Replacement Project. Were we able to have borrowed this $180,000+/- from a public infrastructure bank, at favorable interest rates with a simple application form and standardized underwriting criteria, we would have saved limited staff resources and used our Chapter 90 funds for other important projects.

You can read the letter here.

We are thankful for the Selectboard’s support and hope that they will continue to speak up in favor of a public bank bill when it is filed in the next session.

Poole and Girling: “Public banking would help speed the economic recovery from COVID-19”

Isaiah Poole, editorial manager of the Next System Project at the Democracy Collaborative, and Rick Girling of the California Public Banking Alliance, offer a clarion call for state and city public banks in today’s The Hill. They emphasize that state and city-owned banks can put public money to work to rebuild the economy not just in the face of pandemic-related budget crises facing some 90% of US cities, but to create a more economically just “new normal,” and should be instituted immediately. We agree!

“A public bank, capitalized with the deposits that cities now park in Wall Street banks, will be a ready source of funds to help people and businesses sustain themselves through these hard times and rebuild,” they write. Shifting state or municipal money from Wall Street banks provides the public bank with the capability to make loans, including loans to small- and medium-size businesses.

They note that a public bank could be mandated to fund affordable housing, community hospitals and health care facilities, disaster preparedness, and local Green New Deal projects to help prepare for and hopefully hold off some of the worst harms related to a changing climate.

They point out that times were hard for way too many in this country even before the economy ground to a halt. A return to “normal” must not include the gulf that exists between the “haves” and everyone else.

While our public infrastructure bank bill, as originally filed, had a narrower mandate than the banks Poole and Girling envision we agree that a “new normal” ought to foster economic justice and respect for the quality of life in every city and town, regardless of the income and assets held by the residents. For rebuilding Main Streets across the country, we need public banks now.