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Financing Infrastructure

Cities are always working to repair, replace and improve critical infrastructure like buildings, streets, transit, and pipes. Financing this work can be complicated – decreasing support from states and the federal government and competing priorities are straining municipal budgets. Here we outline some of the tools that cities can use to build green and resilient infrastructure:


Municipal Bonds

A common way for cities to finance capital investments, municipal bonds provide up-front capital that is paid back over the life of the bond out of general revenues. Municipal utilities often have bonding authority as well, which allows them to borrow against expected revenue from ratepayers.


Green Bonds

This instrument elevates the environmental benefits of infrastructure projects, but is essentially identical to other municipal bonds, with two exceptions: the proceeds of the bond sale are reserved for particular “green” projects, and the city commits to track and report on the environmental benefits (e.g. reduced carbon emissions) of the projects. Green Bonds may be general obligation, revenue, project based, or secured by an asset. Green bonds can be used for a range of projects, such as energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy installation, sustainable waste management, clean transportation, sustainable water management, and climate change adaptation.


Century Bonds

Another twist on a basic municipal bond, a century bond is paid back over 100 years. Most cities look for the shortest feasible payback (often 10 to 20 years) for their bonding, so as not to carry debt. A century bond makes sense when the infrastructure it finances has a lifespan of more than 100 years, as it spreads payment out over all those who will benefit from it.


Environmental Impact Bonds

Designed for projects that will provide both financial and societal benefits in the long term, these bonds use a “pay for success” model, combining a regular bond with a performance contract. If the project is successful, investors will receive a premium out of the budgetary savings created by success. If not, investors will either only receive principal and interest, or be required to share the cost of failure.


Green Revolving Funds

These funds are capitalized with an initial investment that is used to make improvements to municipal infrastructure that will yield savings over time, such as energy or water efficiency projects. Those savings accrue in the fund, and are then used for additional projects that generate savings.


Energy Service Contracts

Used to finance improvements to municipal infrastructure that will yield financial savings, most often via reductions in utility bills, these contracts guarantee a certain level of savings to the municipality. A private company (Energy Service Company or ESCO) will make improvements, pay the utility bills, return the guaranteed savings to the city, and keep any additional savings. These deals can be advantageous for cities without technical expertise in building science or sufficient capital to fund projects, but should be carefully negotiated to ensure the maximum benefit for the city.


Value Capture

Value capture describes a range of financing techniques that are predicated on the assumption that certain municipal investments (e.g. transit) increases the value of surrounding properties, and that those properties should contribute towards the cost of developing that infrastructure. Tax Increment Financing and Special Assessment Districts are both examples of value capture.


Resilience Bonds

These are a new twist on catastrophe bonds that could allow cities to invest in infrastructure that improves resilience and reduces risk. Catastrophe bonds are not bonds as described above; they are a financial instrument that bets that a certain defined catastrophe (e.g storm surge above 10 feet) will not happen. If it does, the investor will have to pay to cover losses caused by the event. Catastrophe bonds are more valuable if the risk of the event goes down, and this fact can be leveraged to increase investment in infrastructure projects that decrease risk and increase resilience.  

Guide to Value Capture Financing for Public Transportation Projects, Sasha Page, Bill Bishop, and Waiching Wong, Transit Cooperative Research Program; Transportation Research Board; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, January 1st, 2017. Read more.

What $2.8 Billion Could Do for Atlanta Transit, Josh Cohen, Next City, November 14th, 2016. Read more.

Sound Transit 3 Opens Big Lead with Support in King, Snohomish Counties, Mike Lindblom, Seattle Times, November 10th, 2016. Read more.

From Liberty Lake to Cheney, Cities Across County Passed STA Transit Tax, Mike Prager, The Spokesman-Review, November 9th, 2016. Read more.

Greensboro Voters Pass 4 Bonds by Wide Margin, Margaret Moffett, N&R Greensboro.com, November 8th, 2016. Read more.

Alameda County Bond Measures Target Housing Crisis, Tammerlin Drummond, East Bay Times, October 27th, 2016. Read more.

Handbook on Urban Infrastructure Finance, Julie Kim, New Cities Foundation, April 1st, 2016. Read more.

A New Breed of Muni Bond Is Financing Climate Change Adaptation, Cassie Owens, Next City, September 26th, 2014. Read more.

100 Good Reasons Why Innovation Must Come From Everywhere in Your Organization, George Hawkins, www.georgehawkins.net, July 21st, 2014. Read more.

D.C. Water Considers First-Ever Century Bond by a Public Utility, Liz Farmer, Governing, June 20th, 2014. Read more.

Green Revolving Funds: An Introductory Guide to Implementation & Management, Joe Indvik, et al, Sustainable Endowments Institute & the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, January 1st, 2013. Read more.

Case Study: Tax Increment Financing (TIF), C40 Cities, December 16th, 2012. Read more.

Harnessing Value for Transportation Investment, Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota, June 1st, 2009. Read more.

New Perspectives on Climate Finance for Cities, C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Siemens, and Citi. Read more.

Taking the High Road to More and Better Infrastructure in the United States, Douglass Sims, et al, Natural Resources Defense Council. Read more.

New Perspectives on Climate Finance for Cities report: London Case Study, C40 Cities. Read more.

How to Issue a Green Muni Bond, Green City Bonds Coalition. Read more.

Leveraging Catastrophe Bonds As a Mechanism for Resilient Infrastructure Project Finance, Shalini Vajjhala and James Rhodes, RE.bound Program, re:focus partners. Read more.

New Perspectives on Climate Finance for Cities report: Johannesburg Case Study, C40 Cities. Read more.

New Perspectives on Climate Finance for Cities: Case Study São Paulo, C40 Cities. Read more.

DC Water has used a combination of green bonds, century bonds, and environmental impact bonds to improve the sewer system and finance green infrastructure.


Atlanta and San Antonio both use green revolving loan funds. Atlanta’s Sustainability Projects Fund holds $1.8 million, and has been used since 2009 for lighting efficiency projects. San Antonio’s, created in 2001, is $1.4 million and is used for a range of energy efficiency projects.


The KC Streetcar in Kansas City, MO uses value capture to fund operations. A Transportation Development District (TDD), which is a form of special assessment district, contributed to the capital costs of constructing the system, and continues to fund operations. The TDD is funded via property and parking assessments, and a one-cent sales tax within the district.