Two weeks ago, I participated in the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Legislative Fly-In as part of my role on ASCE’s Infrastructure and Research Policy Committee. I had been looking forward to this event for a while, partially because of my love for DC, but also because of the opportunity to participate in the policymaking process. While I expected the week to be exciting, I didn’t know it would be as inspiring and educational as it was.
So, here’s some background: every year, ASCE members (often section or branch leaders) from around the country fly to Washington, DC for two days. Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning are used as prep time for Wednesday afternoon’s meetings with Congressional Representatives and Senators (or more likely, their staff). This year, all 50 states were represented, and ASCE members had over 300 meetings with Congressional staff to discuss infrastructure policy. This year, specifically, our asks for Congress were to raise the gas tax, fully appropriate infrastructure programs that have already been authorized, and work towards a comprehensive infrastructure bill that would provided the much-needed funding to repair our nation’s infrastructure.
As I was sitting in the room with hundreds of other civil engineers and walking the halls of the House and Senate Buildings, I couldn’t help but think about how fitting the Fly-In was, given my recent experience at the NCSE conference in January. At the conclusion of that conference, I thought about my role as an engineer and citizen and what is required of me to help advance science and evidenced-based policy. I came up with two things: be a storyteller and demand more from my political leaders. And there I was, two months later, thinking of stories to tell about why infrastructure needs more funding and asking my representatives to take action NOW.
In our meetings with representatives from Colorado, I recognized that, while everyone agrees that infrastructure is important, and everyone wants to improve our nation’s infrastructure, how to fund it is a tumultuous question. Although raising the federal gas tax five cents a year for five years would cost the average car only about $150 per year, would provide critical stabilization for the Highway Trust Fund, and be easy to implement RIGHT NOW, there is considerable pushback against this idea. One of the arguments put forward against raising the gas tax is that it is not a long-term solution as cars become more fuel-efficient and more electric cars hit the road. While I agree that raising the gas tax might not be the best solution in thirty years, it is something we can do immediately to fund our transportation and transit systems. If my house was on fire and someone told me, ‘well, your house can catch fire again in ten years,’ would I not still put out the fire that was happening now?
And this brings me to my final realization after the NCSE Conference – policymakers have to innovate. They have to have the courage to do solve the problems in front of them and find new ways to tackle problems in the future. Someone has to show up to advocate for funding our infrastructure now and they have to continue to show up to find new, sustainable ways to fund infrastructure in the future. ASCE has given our infrastructure a D+ (side note: isn’t the infrastructure report card a wonderful storytelling tool?!) and this is not going to magically improve. It will take innovation. It will take courage. It will take working across party lines. And it will require that as engineers we also demand more.
Another part of my week in DC was spent in my policy committee meeting. In this meeting we reviewed a handful of ASCE’s policy statements and concluded our meeting by reviewing a policy statement on post-disaster reconstruction of infrastructure (quite relevant to my research area). While I, and many others, were advocating for a policy statement that recommends building back to a better, more resilient state than what existed before a disaster, the question was raised, “well, isn’t that a political decision? As engineers, our job is not to determine the appropriate level of risk, but to design and construct systems that withstand the level of risk determined by politicians and communities.” And I have to say, that statement has stuck with and troubled me. As civil engineers, our job is to hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public, and does this not mean designing more resilient infrastructure to prevent future disasters? Are we not also responsible for educating the public on the expected disaster risks and advocating for better, safer infrastructure? Do we need to innovate our profession so that future civil engineers consider this to be their responsibility too?