Washington Report: Crisis and the Construction Industry

By Patty Power, ACPA Washington Advocate

While the country continues to be consumed by the historic crises facing our nation—the coronavirus pandemic public health threat, the economic downturn created by the pandemic’s mitigation measures and the nationwide protests calling for racial equality—Washington works on each of these issues. Congress is expected to pass more COVID legislation this month, and the administration continues to implement the trillions of dollars of programmatic funding Congress passed in March and April. Of great interest to the ACPA is recent activity in both the House and Senate on infrastructure programs. We’ll touch on the pandemic economic issues and the legislative movement on infrastructure.

COVID-19 Update

The coronavirus continues to spread across the country, killing an average of 1,000 people a day. The global medical community is learning more about the virus every day, but still does not fully understand how it spreads, why some people get so sick and die while others have no symptoms, and whether having antibodies will give immunity. Because of this lack of understanding, government leaders around the world are struggling with keep their citizens safe. Every decision has a cost. Impose stay-at-home orders and crash the economy. Relax restrictions and invite the coronavirus to spread through your community. And the go-slow, middle-ground approaches that recommend or require social distancing and face coverings to stop COVID’s spread do not seem to be working.

As our governments at every level—federal, state, city, and county—attempt to balance their responsibilities to protect public health and the economy guided in light of limited and constantly changing medical information, citizens grow frustrated. Businesses of all sizes need reliable guidance about safely re-opening. How should your business protect your employees and your customers? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a series of guidance documents, including “What Construction Workers Need to Know about COVID-19.” The CDC consistently updates its recommendations to reflect new scientific information. Current guidance is based on reducing community contagion by social distancing, wearing cloth masks when inside or if unable to stay six feet apart, and frequent hand washing.

The construction industry has not been not been as negatively impacted by COVID closures as many other industries. In most states, construction has not been restricted by stay-at-home orders, although some hard-hit cities have halted construction work for a time. However, projects have been delayed by a number of other factors, including: employees not working because they are sick or they are caring for someone who is sick; unavailable municipal workers needed to issue permits and certificates of occupancy and to do inspections; and materials missing due to delays in supply chains. Over the longer-term, government-funded projects may be delayed or cancelled because of deep budget cuts caused by tax revenue lost during COVID shutdowns.

The administration seeks to alleviate the pressure on the construction industry by easing federal requirements with emergency procedures. The Executive Order on Accelerating the Nation’s Economic Recovery from the COVID-19 Emergency by Expediting Infrastructure Investments and Other Activities calls for expediting highway and other Department of Transportation projects, as well as water and other infrastructure projects.

Infrastructure Legislation

The House of Representatives passed a massive $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill on July 1. It includes a $494 billion five-year reauthorization of the Department of Transportation’s surface transportation programs, including highways, bridges, transit and rail. That is a significant number for the concrete industry. This bill also includes some provisions of concern that ACPA will work with our concrete industry partners to amend. For example, the bill includes a rollback of the recently published Hours of Service rule that incorporates ACPA’s exemptions.

The Senate passed the highway portion of this bill last August. The current authority, the FAST Act, expires on September 30. The differences between the House and Senate bills are many—in fact, far too many to resolve over the next three months. Before the end of September, we expect that both chambers will pass an extension, likely for a year, to keep the programs going. While this is disappointing, it is not unexpected.

We are less than four months away from a major election. That fact alone usually has a huge effect on congressional activity. With COVID and civil unrest added to election pressure, we are in for a crazy rest of the year.

More on the election in the next issue.