Loss of Construction Jobs in Arkansas Shows How Transportation Affects the Heartland of America

Weeks after Donald Trump was elected president with a promise to improve America’s infrastructure, Brian Turmail, a government affairs and communications expert with the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) and Ken Simonson, AGC’s chief economist, stood in front of the antiquated Broadway Bridge in Arkansas – which is being replaced through federal and state funding – to share an American transportation story.

Arkansas, a road- and bridge-dependent state, has been hit hard by construction job losses and a lack of funding for transportation projects. The Little Rock metropolitan area ranked No. 4 out of 358 in the number of construction jobs lost nationwide between October 2015 and October 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Additionally, the Census Bureau reported construction spending for 2016, revealing that highway and street construction only increased by 1.3 percent – less than the rate of increase for labor, materials and subcontractors’ costs, says Simonson.

However, instead of just communicating and speaking about these trends with policy-makers in Washington, D.C., Turmail and Simonson are working to reach other audiences that are also vital in the debate to fund infrastructure: the public, local media outlets, and business stakeholders in varying parts of the country. These grassroots events give legs to Trump’s assurances and leverage AGC’s messages, which were included in stories by local media and KUAR Public Radio in Little Rock.

“AGC of America organized the media event in Little Rock, Arkansas, to push the incoming Trump administration to deliver on its promise to invest in infrastructure,” explains Turmail. “As part of that event, we released new construction employment data showing the metro area had some of the largest declines in construction employment in the country and noted how much the economy stood to benefit from a new infrastructure program.”

AGC was joined by the Arkansas chapter of AGC to communicate the need for prioritizing infrastructure investments, which also calls attention to how a lack of ongoing federal funding can have far-reaching effects.

When transportation projects aren’t funded or completed, it burdens state economies as well as Departments of Transportation. It affects mobility and connectivity, companies’ bottom-lines, and the safety and quality of life Americans enjoy. As a case in point: Arkansas has used bonds and enacted a half-penny sales tax to help fund the rehabilitation of some of its interstates.

Transportation Tied to Regional Stories

Groups such as AGC know that transportation monies improve communities throughout the nation. Replacing the Broadway Bridge, or the recent widening of I-40 from Conway to Little Rock, have real-life impacts, says Thomas Dickinson, president of AGC Arkansas and general manager of McGeorge Contracting Company in Pine Bluff, Ark.

“America, as a whole, has a great road system. As it was originally laid out, it’s probably the best in the world as far as getting from point A to point B, but after it was built, it’s kind of been put on the backburner as a lower priority and a lot of it is falling apart and needs to be readdressed. Here in Arkansas, we just widened I-40, from Conway to Little Rock, which for 20 or 30 years was just backed-up traffic for 30 miles going both ways in the morning and night, and now everyone can pass through safer and more efficiently. But a lot of that progress needs to happen in many other places,” reminds Dickinson.

“Infrastructure has always been vital to the U.S. economy as well as being a great source of jobs for the construction industry and for industries providing materials and equipment. The Broadway Bridge across the river in Little Rock is a prime example of how the country is renewing and expanding and modernizing infrastructure selectively, but we need far more examples of that,” adds Simonson. “Unfortunately, the funding has not been coming through at sufficient levels to replace all of our obsolete and worn-out bridges and there are far too many of those that need replacing in the near future.”

Long-Term Transportation Solutions Needed

For years now, elected officials throughout America have been cautioned about a transportation network increasingly in need of repairs, modernization and funding for new projects. Legislators and the White House have grappled with how to ensure federal monies and come up with financing and funding solutions considering that the federal gas tax (that provides monies for the Highway Trust Fund) sits stagnant as the state of the nation’s transportation grid continues to decline cumulatively.

The most recent bipartisan surface-transportation legislation, known as the FAST Act, was finally approved in 2015 after more than 30 extensions. As an example of why a focus on transportation funding is needed, consider, too, that appropriations (spending) for 2017 have still not been allocated. Thus, for transportation stakeholders, talk about “sustainable” funding has become as ubiquitous as an Emoji on Facebook.

“There’s huge frustration with the gridlock in Washington and the seeming inability to come up with sustained funding for infrastructure projects,” says Simonson. “In the last five years, many states – whatever party is in control – have passed their own gas-tax increases or other increases in funding for highways and they are going ahead with vital highway and bridge projects to improve safety, quality of life, travel time, and business competitiveness. But a lot of projects are interstate in nature, or beyond the funding capacity of a single jurisdiction, and this is where we really need a federal role to step in.”

Because of this, AGC will continue to visit different communities, and reach out to the regional press, public and business stakeholders, and also continue to hold the president to his word and work with Congress on this pressing subject.

Dickinson points out: “Bettering the transportation network is something that the people of America do when they build or construct a road or a bridge and it’s something we can be proud of. It’s a tangible thing that folks do and can look at and say, ‘We built that.’ Consistent and stable funding for infrastructure today and in the future will ensure that competitive advantage and will remain a strong reason for companies to move to, and remain in, our country.”

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