ASCE members celebrate Senate infrastructure bill as ‘giant leap forward’

ASCE’s long-term advocacy efforts scored a huge victory this week when the Senate passed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in a 69-30 bipartisan vote.

The legislation would mark the largest U.S. infrastructure investment in generations; $550 billion over the next five years for the nation’s roads, bridges, rail, airports, clean water, and public transit – all infrastructure sectors that ASCE has been advocating for over the last three decades with its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

“I’m ecstatic. There’s nothing in my tenure with ASCE that compares to this,” said Paul Maron, P.E., M.ASCE, a project manager for Strand Associates in Louisville and a longtime infrastructure advocacy champion with the ASCE Kentucky Section.

“When it comes to reinvesting in our infrastructure, for so long we’ve just been doing the bare minimum, making very modest, incremental improvements. But this, I think, is a giant leap forward. And I hope this sets an expectation for more bills like this – not just as a response to a pandemic, but what we should be doing for our future generations going forward.”

The bill must pass the House of Representatives (with debate set to start as early as Aug. 23) before it would go before President Joe Biden to be signed into law. Still, passage in the Senate clears a huge roadblock toward realizing the kind of legislation ASCE members have been calling their representatives and senators about and attending legislative fly-ins to discuss for decades.

“Some of us with our group here in Kentucky, yeah, we gave ourselves a little pat on the back this week,” Maron said, with a laugh. “We’ve been meeting with our congressional delegation, following up with emails, really doing what we can to develop personal relationships with the staff, continuing to keep those consistent messages – not coming from a partisan position but helping as subject-matter experts.

“And I can’t say how much of a difference we made in getting this done, but I’d like to think we at least helped.”

ASCE members Paul Maron and Colette Easter meet with U.S. Representative Thomas Massie (KY-R). PHOTO: Paul Maron

Long-term effort

The first ASCE infrastructure report card grades dates back to 1988, when America’s infrastructure earned a C grade. Since then, the Society has issued seven more report cards, including the 2021 edition released this past March, and ramped up its overall advocacy initiative – including the Key Contact program, the annual fly-in events, Infrastructure Week partnerships, and a wide range of regularly released state report cards.

And while it may seem that those advocacy roads have all led to this summer’s infrastructure bill, there have been many legislative victories and signs of progress along the way – the Water Resources Development Act in 2016 and America’s Water Infrastructure Act in 2018, to name two recent examples.

Jim Pajk, P.E., M.ASCE, an assistant administrator of design and construction for the city of Columbus Department of Public Service, has been a stalwart of ASCE advocacy efforts with the Central Ohio Section for nearly 20 years and earned the ASCE Civil Engineer Advocate of the Year Award in 2016. He cited the 2019 Ohio legislation that increased the state’s gas tax as an important accomplishment. Pajk, though, is more apt to measure progress by the relationships he’s formed than the policies he’s influenced.

“I’ve always told people, it’s not that first year or that second year. But as you develop those contacts, moving forward, you see it change,” said Pajk, who was one of three ASCE members recently invited by CNN to attend a town-hall event with President Biden in Ohio.

“Maybe I get a call from Sen. [Rob] Portman’s office about something, or I get a call from Sen. Sherrod Brown asking for my thoughts. You get invited to attend certain meetings. You start developing those connections, and that’s when I think you start to feel like you’re making a difference.”

In West Virginia, Tabitha Lafferre, A.M.ASCE, made a unique contribution to the push for infrastructure investment by blending her role as a state report card co-chair and a civil engineering professor at Fairmont State University. She taught a class on the report card, and several of her students earned bylines in the 2020 Report Card for West Virginia’s Infrastructure.

“It’s very rewarding as both a civil engineer and an educator to help push this forward and be able to work with our nation’s leaders to better our infrastructure,” Lafferre said.

Perhaps not coincidentally, both West Virginia senators – Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Joe Manchin – played key roles in crafting the bipartisan infrastructure framework.

“It’s great to see our West Virginia senators investing so much of their time helping with a bipartisan solution for infrastructure,” Lafferre said. “From day one, we’ve been seeing both of them talk about infrastructure. We also have great representatives who we’ve talked with, and they’re very much on board with infrastructure investment. It’s been great to see how open they’ve all been, always willing to take a phone call from me or the ASCE West Virginia Section, reaching out to us for resources.”

ASCE members Jim Pajk, Lita Lavin, and Tony Klimek attending the CNN town hall with President Biden. PHOTO: Jim Pajk
West Virginia report card leaders Tabitha Lafferre, Rodney Holbert, and Cindy Shamblin took a group of students to meet with West Virginia leaders at the capitol. PHOTO: Tabitha Lafferre

Hope for the future

At a time in American life often defined by division, ASCE has focused its infrastructure advocacy work as a potential unifier, a nonpartisan point of emphasis. So it was notable that the infrastructure bill transcended party lines as it passed the Senate.

“It’s always been said that infrastructure is a bipartisan issue,” Pajk said. “And it’s nice to see senators working on something that’s important to the country, that we can find common ground on. It’s good to see that workability, that governing we used to have on issues that are important. That’s what gives me that hope.”

It’s hope that has sustained the ASCE members working toward this goal; hope that will continue to push the advocacy efforts forward.

“I think it’s just really encouraging that it’s actually happening,” Maron said. “I hope that Congress and the executive branch see the benefits of this kind of investment and realize that it’s not a one-off. There are true economic and social advantages to continue to invest in infrastructure at these kinds of levels.

“We’ve been talking about the need for a big infrastructure bill, a big reinvestment for decades. And it’s finally here.”

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