Amid infrastructure bill negotiations last year, when the pandemic still limited in-person meetings, lobbyist Martin T. Whitmer Jr. found a creative way to come before lawmakers with a message from his client, the asphalt industry: He pulled a pair of foldable lawn chairs from his trunk and invited lawmakers to meet him in a park near the Capitol.
“You just have to have face to face on some things, and that really, really helped,” Mr. Whitmer said.
The strategy seems to have paid off. Of the $1 trillion in spending authorized by infrastructure legislation that President Biden signed in November, the asphalt industry could ultimately receive the largest share. And while roads were always likely to be a key piece of legislation, the lobbying effort provided industry with a chance to promote what it presented as its environmental consciousness, making funding more palatable to lawmakers who feared road building would fuel climate change.
The infrastructure program allocates at least $350 billion over five years for highways and bridges, according to the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonprofit transportation think tank in Washington, compared with about $91 billion for highways and bridges. public transport. An additional $19 billion to the Department of Transportation to fund major projects, like undersea vehicle tunnels or bridge replacements, could increase pavement spending.
The highways and bridges budget will pay for engineers, steel, concrete and other elements of the structures. But lobbyists and transportation experts expect an inordinate share of pavement spending to go to asphalt, the material that paves 94% of America’s roads and bridges (the remaining 6% is paved with concrete). .
The asphalt industry funding victory appears to be the result of legislative prioritization of meat and potatoes that was aided by a politically prescient push by trade groups, according to lobbyists, congressional aides and other people involved in the process. Lawmakers realized that in a polarized political environment, they could find common cause in fixing roads and bridges. Asphalt advocates, hoping to counter the idea that asphalt harms the environment, have touted the material as an unlikely ally in the fight against climate change.
“We are the most recycled product in the United States,” said Jay Hansen, executive vice president of advocacy at the National Asphalt Pavement Association, the industry’s leading trade group. A 21-page letter the association sent to Mr. Biden’s transition team at the end of 2020 titled “Building Back Better with Asphalt” suggested that asphalt was also essential for job creation and to economic recovery.
The first round of funding under the infrastructure plan, which focused on a few areas like broadband, energy programs and water services, was provided shortly after the bill was signed . The next wave, which contains tens of billions of dollars for highways and bridges, is expected to be released when Congress approves a spending plan for 2022, potentially next month. This funding will be distributed to cities and states, which will combine it with their own funding from fuel taxes and other fees to pay for building projects, including paving.
Controversies over how to spend the money are already stirring. A December memo from the Federal Highway Administration that prioritized improving existing roads before building new ones — a proposal transportation industry leaders saw as an attempt to reduce the environmental impact of new construction – sparked protests from some state transportation officials, who said the guidelines undermine them.
In a letter Friday to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, more than two dozen Republican senators — including Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Minority Leader, and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the Republican lead on the committee Environment and Public Works — argued that the memo’s proposal contradicted Congress’s intent to pass the bill. The senators asked Mr. Buttigieg to rescind or revise the memo to better reflect the spirit of the law.
Meanwhile, an effort by Senate Democrats to suspend the federal fuel tax to counter rising consumer prices was met with immediate opposition from the transportation industry. An industry trade group said in a letter to Senate leaders that even a temporary tax cut risked unraveling the infrastructure package.
Despite ongoing political wrangling, asphalt producers say they are excited about the prospect of five years of funding certainty, which will allow them to hire and grow.
“We have the ability to do more work,” said Dan Garcia, president of Marietta, Georgia-based asphalt producer CW Matthews. “So from an equipment capability, from a factory capability, it will be really good for us.”
Mr. Garcia’s company operates 27 asphalt plants across Georgia, crushing rock mined from nearby quarries, combining it with sand and gravel in a mixture called “aggregate” and baking it with asphalt. , a viscous liquid derived from crude oil. The asphalt mix is then loaded onto 18-tonne trucks which transport the mix to job sites.
With a funding increase of up to 20% expected at the Georgia State Department of Transportation, which is CW Matthews’ largest customer, Mr. Garcia is now looking to add more than 100 employees to his team of 1,300. people.
Roadway groups were urging the government to come up with more permanent funding for roads long before Mr Biden was elected. The last major funding package, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. Mr. Trump’s administration introduced its own plan, but a series of “weeks of infrastructure” that have led to little progress. eventually became a running joke. By 2020, the pandemic had overtaken most other priorities.
The infrastructure bill at a glance
In December 2020, shortly after Mr. Biden’s victory, the National Asphalt Pavement Association sent its “Build Back Better with Asphalt” letter to the president-elect. Arguments about the need for new funding for roads and bridges were not new, but the positioning of asphalt as an environmentally friendly material was.
Mr. Whitmer, who knew some of the transportation advisers on the presidential transition team, recalled being encouraged by the response. “They didn’t know that asphalt was the most recycled product,” he said, advisers told him in behind-the-scenes discussions.
The overall environmental impact of asphalt, however, is less rosy. New roads intended to reduce urban traffic jams simply bring in more drivers, which increases carbon emissions. Recycling a wider variety of materials into asphalt, such as soil, used tires or soybean oil, and baking asphalt components at a lower temperature to reduce emissions are promising practices, but which have not yet been widely adopted.
Mr. Garcia’s plants still produce the relatively hotter “hot mix” asphalt surfacing and tend to have between 20 and 40 percent recycled asphalt surfacing in their new materials – more than the standard US road contains.
Asphalt itself is a polluting hydrocarbon. And a recent study by engineers at Yale University suggested that asphalt pollutes the air when exposed to sunlight. (The Asphalt Association questioned some of the conclusions of the Yale study, saying that “asphalt materials from in-use pavements are not significant sources of urban smog.”)
Last April, after Mr. Biden unveiled a jobs plan that prioritized rebuilding roads and bridges, transportation groups began to coordinate more closely. The mentality, said Jeff Davis, principal investigator at the Eno Center, was “a rising tide lifts all boats.” He added: “They all agreed that more money was going to help everyone.”
To give the lobbying a more tangible quality, Vulcan Materials, the nation’s largest producer of construction aggregate, brought in Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, Democrat of Georgia, to her career from Norcross in that state, and Senator Bill Hagerty , a Republican from Tennessee — who had put himself through college in part through a job shoveling asphalt — to tour his Nashville quarry.
In Washington, Mr. Whitmer pulled his chairs out of the trunk and began calling members of Congress for coffee in the park. In video calls, Mr. Hansen showed two-inch squares of solid asphalt mix. “You use it every day, but you don’t realize it,” he said.
Last April, when the White House and some lawmakers began to define infrastructure in general terms, some industry executives and lobbyists worried that money that had historically gone to freeways was being shared with projects like federally subsidized housing. An industry suggestion to raise federal fuel taxes to help pay for new spending was rejected by Senate leaders. The whole process was hampered by partisan polarization in Congress.
But the issue proved important enough for enough members of both parties to secure a bipartisan deal, providing substantial new funds for needs like public transit and better access to broadband as well as roads.
“Bringing the two parties together to agree on something is good. Wish we saw this more often,” Garcia said a recent morning in Adairsville, Georgia, above the sounds of truck equipment as his crew placed asphalt along Highway 140. career – but that’s obviously progress, right? »