The AI Interview: APWA President Bill Spearman, and President-elect Mary Joyce Ivers

The leaders of the American Public Works Association understand the challenges of our time, and see public works as part of the solution

American Infrastructure: As the United States faces unprecedented challenges due to the Coronavirus, what will be the role of the public works industry and of the APWA?

Bill Spearman: This is a national disaster that we’re going through. The beauty is that we still have electricity, we still have water, we have things that are effective in a national disaster. The public works industry is that one sense of normalcy we still have; people are still collecting garbage, we’re still treating water, we’re still fixing roads. Public works industry is one of those things that going to help us get through this situation.

AI: What is your message to those in the industry experiencing uncertainty about the future?

BS: We’re learning how to work differently, whether it’s from home or doing conference calls. There’s always opportunity, even in these times, for things that you may not have thought about being possible in the past. The public is still working, even though people are quarantined. There is still a need for commerce; we need roads for goods and services, bridges still need to be inspected. We still have an important place to make sure the public is able to work and we sustain the quality of life we want.

Mary Joyce Ivers: I agree, we’re here to keep our community safe. We have our field crews keeping the streets going for first responders, which we are first responders as well, I think we’re a piece of that. We’ll be helping communities rebuild to hopefully offset the economic challenges. Finding shovel-ready projects to support the stimulus would be great because we will get people working, supporting our businesses, but doing it safely.

AI: What do you see as some of the most important changes in how we fund and/or develop public infrastructure across the country?

BS: In years past we relied heavily on the federal government for funding, but in recently that burden has fallen on local governments. And since local governments are the closest to the people they’ve stepped up with their funding. There is still a tremendous need for some federal funding. Right now we’re worried about the highway trust fund because it expires in several months. We’re really concerned about having a long term funding solution to one of the most vital parts of our infrastructure, our transportation. And making sure it’s sustainable with things like congestion issues. Making sure there is a fair and equitable system going forward.

MJI: Two weeks ago we were in D.C. talking with our elected officials about funding options, and a piece of that is talking about regulation. They’re learning now through this pandemic is; how can we ease up some of the regulations so that we can get work done? So that’s a positive thing the federal government is working on, and hopefully it gets down into the states so we streamline our regulatory requirements and get the projects done.

AI: Where do you see the country’s infrastructure systems going in the distant future, and what needs to happen now in order to get there?

BS: Everyone has to see the issues we are facing. Everybody likes to have smooth roads and to have their water, but these come at a cost. Sometimes we hide the true cost of things, and we need to make sure that people realize somebody is having to pay, and that there are pay systems, but making sure that’s an understanding. We push a program called asset management where everything you own as a government is an asset. Once you build something, it starts to deteriorate, and you need to understand the cost of maintenance. There must be programs going forward that maintain the infrastructure to a level that serves the needs of our folks.

MJL: In D.C. we also met with the Education Department and identified a shortage of skilled workers. With the way the economy is moving people might be looking for different careers and so public works could help create some different opportunities.

AI: What can readers expect to see from the APWA throughout the rest of 2020?

BS: It’s our goal to continue providing the content and resources that help our members. Education is really the forefront of what we do. So making sure we have the online content, and working with our 63 chapters around North America, and reminding folks that we are open for business. We may be doing things a little differently, but we expect to be able to give the same level of service to our members.

MJL: We’ve put free online training for our members. We’ve got valuable things for our employees to do who can’t be out in the office or in the field, and I think that’s the most important thing. We want to provide value and to be the voice in government providing our input on regulations and policies for public works. We might be doing things differently, we don’t know what our new normal is but when we get through this pandemic together as a nation and the world, that is our goal.