Corinna Petry headshot
From the Editor
By Corinna Petry
Build it local

ongress and the administration have a lot to do, including allocating funds for COVID-19 vaccinations and economic relief for people who have lost income as a result of the pandemic. One way to put a great number of people back to work is by passing legislation that finances infrastructure projects, including the surface transportation bill, which expires Sept. 30.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, during a Feb. 16 briefing, confirmed that President Joe Biden met earlier in February with senators about infrastructure. “It’s one of the areas where there’s opportunity to work together. Most people wouldn’t argue that our roads, our bridges, our streets need to be rebuilt,” she told reporters.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Arkansas, who serves on the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, agrees that infrastructure typically is able to garner bipartisan support. However, he believes that rules and regulations attached to new spending packages should reflect the local concerns of states, counties and municipalities.

“The federal government doesn’t build the roads; it authorizes and finances [the work]. In the end, we need to rely on the states to get things done,” Crawford says. Any infrastructure spending policy should “give states as much flexibility as possible to meet the needs of their citizens. Every state has different needs. I don’t want to see federal limits on how they prioritize [projects]. I want to see something that imparts flexibility and control locally.”

in the end, we need to rely on the states to get things done.
Specifically, he hopes to see “limited federal intervention. I think governors can share best practices. The states aren’t there just to do the federal government’s bidding. State legislatures are accountable. Permitting is a prime example. The cost associated with permitting runs total costs up considerably.”

Another issue is labor expense. In prior funding bills, the mandate to pay prevailing wages was rough on taxpayers. “Labor costs are lower in Arkansas than in Illinois or New York, so why not recognize and index that to a prevailing rate to the state rather than the highest possible wage rate nationally? It doesn’t help us to stretch dollars.

“No one wants to cheat the workforce but we are now talking about a $15 minimum wage. That has impact beyond those working in minimum wage jobs. Union contracts are pegged to that rate. So when a wage increases 100 percent, that affects contract pricing. It will impact labor costs across the breadth of geography.”

According to Crawford, drafters of the legislation should “think about it beyond the people this is targeted at. I would rather see minimum wage rate pegged to state GDP. We did that in Arkansas. But the federal government gravitates to the highest common denominator: cities dominated by unions and their wage rates.

“In the end,” he says, “the product quality will be the same because the parameters are defined by the federal government. Follow specifications, yes, but it should not cost the same to build Interstate 40 in Arkansas versus I-95 in Massachusetts.”

For more on the prospects of a comprehensive infrastructure spending package during 2021, please see our cover story starting on Page 18.