Building for 2021 and Beyond

Public works and infrastructure in the 117th Congress

By Mary Joyce Ivers and Scott D. Grayson

As the 117th Congress begins this month, a great deal of possibilities remains as to what both chambers of Congress, the president and his administration may do in terms of legislation and regulations impacting infrastructure. As leaders of the American Public Works Association (APWA), we represent more than 30,000 public works professionals across North America who are dedicated to providing essential services. For us, it is always clear that we must continue to be strong advocates for federal action to ensure the men and women on the frontlines of public works have the support they need to continue delivering vital services to their communities. 

For us, it is always clear that we must continue to be strong advocates for federal action to ensure the men and women on the frontlines of public works have the support they need to continue delivering vital services to their communities.”

First, we will work with our membership and our partners in the infrastructure sector to convey to Congress and the president the urgency of passing a new surface transportation reauthorization law.  When a continuing resolution (CR) was signed into law Oct. 1, 2020, it extended the current surface transportation law, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, for an additional year. This extension provides certainty, however, we will continue to call upon Congress for the new law to be at least 6 years in length and increase funding for our roads, bridges and transit systems through increasing the federal fuel tax by 25 cents over three years. The law should support a transition to a more viable federal funding stream such as a vehicle miles traveled (VMT) mechanism, while continuing advances in technology that protects all system users physically, as well as their data. Beyond the basics of ensuring a long-term reauthorization bill, APWA advocates for Congress to renew its commitment, and the important role it has in partnering with our state and local governments, in the need to support public works agencies as they construct and maintain surface transportation infrastructure. 

Just as critical to our nation’s well-being is our water infrastructure. Public works agencies help ensure access to clean drinking water, of notable importance during a public health emergency. Additionally, public works agencies treat wastewater, providing a benefit to both public health and the environment. Our nation’s drinking water and wastewater systems are in need of significant investment. The EPA estimates water infrastructure will need over $700 billion in investment over the next 20 years. The Congressional Budget Office has found that 96% of funding for water infrastructure comes from state and local sources. We will continue to raise awareness of the importance of federal funding and financing mechanisms in assisting water utility operators. Significant regulatory changes impacting water systems may be on the horizon in 2021, as well as implementation of regulations passed in the latter half of 2020. Changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Rule may see significant alterations or even be completely reversed. There is also work being done on regulations related to the National Environmental Policy Act, the Lead and Copper Rule, and potential regulations surrounding per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Clean water can be preserved through effective, science-based regulations while still streamlining unnecessarily burdensome permitting processes where possible, and enhancing state and local control. 

As well as maintaining infrastructure, public works plays an equally important role as first responders conducting emergency management. This was highlighted in 2020, which has seen a global pandemic, increased natural disasters, and widespread civil unrest. Public works professionals have worked side-by-side with other first responders on emergency response activities including crowd control, debris clearing, and traffic incident management. APWA will work to ensure that legislation and regulations in the emergency management sector are supported with the necessary funding and training. We will closely follow any legislative or regulatory developments affecting Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) disaster relief programs. APWA supports reforms to the Stafford Act, which governs FEMA disaster relief programs, to ensure communities effectively receive the resources needed to increase resiliency and to recover. Changes to cost sharing structures, increased emphasis on mitigation, and elimination of duplicative requirements, among other reforms, are keys to achieving this goal and APWA will continue to advocate for these adjustments. 

A diverse array of challenges and opportunities will face public works and the infrastructure sector throughout the 117th Congress. Persistent advocacy across this wide spectrum of issues is key to ensuring infrastructure priorities are addressed. We are optimistic that much can be accomplished in the years to come and look forward to continuing to work with our many partners to strengthen our impact as we continue building our future. 

Mary Joyce Ivers, CPFP, PWLF, is president of APWA and deputy public works director for the City of Ventura, Calif. Public Works Department. Scott D. Grayson, CAE, is CEO of APWA.