Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Infrastructure Solution for Struggling Cities Like Flint, Michigan

Dan Kildee on Jane Avenue in Flint in June 2010. (Photo by Gordon Young)

In the newly released revised and updated edition of Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee endorses a massive infrastructure project to help troubled cities like Flint. 

The water crisis is the latest egregious symptom of the punishing global economic forces, along with misguided Federal and state policies, that penalize places like Flint. It will take a  monumental national effort to turn things around. That means an investment of federal and state money that gives Flint a chance to prosper but might not pay dividends for years.


Dan Kildee, Flint's Democratic congressman, has championed downtrodden cities for decades. He believes he has the solution to achieve this seemingly impossible goal. We both grew up in the Civic Park neighborhood at a time when the city was slipping but still had a lot to offer. Neighborhood kids had to decide which of the dozens of free summer programs to attend. It was a far cry from today’s Flint.


Kildee believes a massive program that devotes several trillion dollars to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure has the greatest chance of someday getting support in Washington. And if special emphasis is given to Flint, Youngstown, Gary and cities like them, it could function as a new Marshall Plan to “reset” these troubled areas, much the way the U.S. helped rebuild Europe after World War II.


“I don’t think we can chip away at the problem,” he told me. “We need a big, bold, and very significant effort to help areas where you have chronic poverty. Until we fix the fundamental problems, we are really just managing the decline.”


Kildee envisions clearing away the thousands of abandoned structures in distressed cities. Extra funding would be used to rehabilitate abandoned factory sites and provide tax credits for developers to build on them. Cities would also get resources to right-size their aging, inefficient water and sewer systems. Because these projects would take years to complete, job programs could train the chronically unemployed to complete some of the work.


It’s a clear-eyed plan that doesn’t downplay the problems facing Flint. I want to believe this could all come to pass, but I also know that Flint is a place where optimism gets its ass kicked on a regular basis.


Kildee didn't try to reassure me. He simply pointed out that there aren’t very many alternatives, other than tinkering around the edges. “It may well be that this does not happen anytime soon,” he said,” but it will never happen if we don’t define what the real solution is for Flint. And it will never happen if we don’t try.” 

I agree, but I was skeptical Washington would ever approve such an initiative on the scale needed to make a real difference. But Biden's recent proposal — and its positive reception from the public — has left me cautiously optimistic.

White House officials said the proposal’s combination of spending and tax credits would translate into 20,000 miles of rebuilt roads, repairs to the 10 most economically important bridges in the country, the elimination of lead pipes from the nation’s water supplies and a long list of other projects intended to create millions of jobs in the short run and strengthen American competitiveness in the long run.

Flint offers many lessons. One of them is that small, scattered solutions to monumental problems seldom result in real progress. An ambitious infrastructure initiative can change the fortunes of places like Flint across the country. Let's hope it actually happens.