Spreading the IIJA Wealth: Plans for Improving Virginia’s Infrastructure

Sean Rousseau, ACEC/MW Transportation Committee Chair, shares his thoughts on IIJA spending in Virginia transportation, as discussed in the virtual event on February 16, 2022.

Since Congress passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) last November, our engineering community has been eager to learn how Virginia will prioritize and spend its share of the funding.  Leaders from several local transportation agencies discussed the transformative effects the IIJA will have on multimodal transportation across the region at ACEC/MW's recent virtual event. During a candid and optimistic panel conversation, Monica Backmon (NVTA) and Keith Jasper (NVTA), Thomas L. Nelson, Jr. (FHWA), Jennifer Mitchell (DRPT), William C. Cuttler (VDOT), and Dennis Leach (Arlington County) spoke about how their agencies are preparing for the IIJA funding ($550 billion nationally over five years), also known as the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law” (BIL), and how they envision this funding to improve sustainable and healthy travel options and (re)connect communities.
Over the course of a two-hour conversation, the topics of equity, mode-choice and safety were clearly interconnected. Thomas Nelson Jr. framed equity nicely in that it must be just for all users and encompass rural to urban projects, public transportation, and electric vehicles. Thomas also underscored the jobs creation aspect of the BIL. The panel was in consensus in further defining equity as a means to have mode choice and a sense of fairness for all users in the NOVA region. Another aspect of equity that was shared is the important role small and disadvantaged businesses will play going forward to deliver projects and build capacity in the workforce. And speaking of workforce…everyone acknowledged that the current transportation job market is competitive, and the labor market is tight. Panelists stated they are actively hiring at their agencies and will continue to leverage consultants to support and deliver projects. Looking further ahead in terms of workforce, it was refreshing to learn that thought is being put into growing the next generation. Dennis Leach commented on the importance of internships to cultivate talent and to be courageous in broadening the search parameters for hiring to look beyond the traditional categories. Inter-agency support and the ongoing collaboration amongst these agencies will remain paramount in the delivery of projects throughout the region. FHWA will be working with agencies as well as non-traditional partners and localities to help get the IIJA dollars to the local level.
Technology and innovation are shaping up as an area with cross-over applications to equity, workforce, and best practices to serve customers. In a quasi-post-pandemic-reality, these agencies are re-examining technology. Keith Jasper noted that attendance has doubled at project meetings because of virtual public engagement events. This increase in participation due to technology underscores the equity benefit that active and meaningful public engagement fosters. Technology is also allowing agencies and firms to be more efficient in the face of staff shortages. 
Realizing the “once in a generation” aspect of the BIL, the agencies collectively demonstrated that providing multimodal options is critical and that it goes hand-in-hand with safety, access and accessibility. Virginia is expected to receive about $1.2 billion over five years under the BIL to improve public transportation options across the state. In an energetic presentation, Monica Backmon was emphatic that multimodal solutions have to be integrated into the region's transportation investments. From bus rapid transit and W&OD trail projects, to road and rail investments, NVTA will continue to support projects that are beneficial to all communities across Virginia. On the transit side of the multimodal equation, Jennifer Mitchell stressed the importance of having assets that are in a state of good repair as performance, safety, efficiency, and reliability are important factors in choosing to travel by public transit. From the VDOT perspective, Bill Cutler stated that projects are no longer “just highways” and that having multimodal design elements is one way to better serve NOVA customers.
In a closing lightning round, panelists were asked what consultants can do to support the transportation industry:
  • VDOT – personal responsibility of driving habits to create a safer environment and a challenge to designers to go beyond the minimum.
  • DRPT – encourage transit usage, carpooling, and explore innovative ways to rethink transit systems.
  • Arlington County – promote travel choice and safe choices.
  • NVTA – Think about what it would take to travel differently, and promote trip sharing, remote work, and travel choice.
  • FHWA – Listen to the community, future proof infrastructure, and focus on safety
This is a transformational moment for the transportation industry. Abundant funding is available through the IIJA, with a local focus on safety and implementing a multimodal approach that recognizes all users to promote greater equity for the region. Although it is disappointing that work is off to a slow start until Congress passes its appropriations bills, it is reassuring to see these agencies working together and thinking along similar lines. However, ongoing transparency and inter-agency cooperation will be important when the funding starts flowing and competition mounts between projects, procurement, and staffing resources. This is an opportunity for consultants and clients alike to be agile and creative in tackling this “good” problem.
ACEC/MW's Transportation Committee looks forward to continuing to provide meaningful dialogue through future events like this which connects industry leaders with the engineering community in a way that informs, educates, and engages. If interested in being a part of this committee, and advocating for transportation, we welcome you to join.

Sean Rousseau is an Associate Vice President with AECOM based in Arlington, Virginia. In this role, Sean supports AECOM's transportation planning and design across the Metropolitan DC region.  He serves as the ACEC/MW Transportation Committee Chair.



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