Pilot cities came to the SC2 pilot with varying levels of capacity that affected their experience and what was accomplished. Distressed cities often lack sufficient financial resources and staff capacity to address the challenges they face. While the pilot offered these cities substantial resources at no cost, some of the cities had so little capacity that, while they were enthusiastic about their involvement in the pilot, they could not take full advantage of what it offered.
We asked city stakeholders and team members to identify challenges they faced related to capacity. In one city with a small staff, the capacity in city hall was described as minimal, with the few staff they had focused on “dealing with fire drills every day.” This contributed to a lack of attention to the pilot and led to team members having to work with local nonprofits and organizations rather than the city. In another city it was noted that the city was unable to focus on the pilot or clarify priorities due to its limited staff being stretched too thin and thus unable to devote significant attention to a narrow set of issues. Additionally, the city’s financial situation encouraged it to chase numerous grant and funding opportunities with little strategic vision of how to take advantage of those resources. In light of challenges related to low capacity, several team members noted the importance of cities having a minimal amount of capacity in place in order to benefit from the pilot—that a city in effect needs to be able to try to take action on its own and then ask for help from the federal government rather than relying on team members to take on the full burden.
Though faced with challenges, the pilot cities were not without certain advantages that may have aided the SC2 teams in addressing city priorities. Two pilot cities were beneficiaries of significant previous federal investment unrelated to SC2 in the form of funds for constructing a high-speed rail line in one city and a streetcar line in the other. In both cases, this encouraged the SC2 teams to align implementation activities with the planned investment, leading to the alignment of transit plans in one city and transit-corridor planning in the second. A third city was unique among pilot cites due to previous relationships that existed prior to SC2 between city officials and key federal government officials. That city’s mayor took part in conversations that U.S. mayors had with President Obama about the formation of SC2; additionally, the mayor and two city department heads had prior working relationships with secretaries of three federal agencies that committed staff to the city’s SC2 team and were among those granting high-level access to respond to requests from the city.