ACMA pushes composites in Trump infrastructure plan
"It's a watershed time," said Tom Dobbins, president and CEO of the American Composites Manufacturers Association. "The American people's attention to infrastructure has probably never been higher since Eisenhower built the Interstate [highway] system."
Arlington, Va.-based ACMA and a group of about 40 executives from member companies did what's typical at lobbying fly-ins — they met with more than 90 members of Congress and staff, along with executive branch officials.
Their timing was about as good as it gets. Their D.C. event had been in the works for months but happened to fall just after President Trump talked about infrastructure in his State of the Union address, and only a few days before the expected Feb. 12 roll out of the detailed plans.
Aside from piggybacking on the political momentum, they were trying to make sure any legislation gives composites — a much newer material compared to building industry stalwarts like concrete and steel — a seat at the table.
"We're not looking for mandates, we're looking to open up the bidding process so we have a fair shake," said Leon Garoufalis, president and chief operating officer of Composites One, a large materials distributor in Arlington Heights, Ill.Steve Toloken Garoufalis
ACMA argues that composites, which sometimes have a higher initial cost, are cheaper over the product life because they last longer and need less maintenance.
Dobbins said such life cycle analysis of different materials is "politically controversial," but he contends it favors composites if government procurement can use it more widely.
"Composites win in a life cycle assessment because we're going to last so much longer," he said.
ACMA came armed for its government meetings with specific requests, like funding to develop federal government standards and testing for using composites, similar to what steel has.
They also pushed things that could be independent of any new government money, such as legislative language that encourages use of "innovative materials" in government infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, dams and harbors.
"Our hope is that in the infrastructure act it will create some awareness of the value of what they are calling innovative materials, and that's a key phrase," said Thom Johnson, business manager for specialty resins at Ashland Inc.
"If they do anything to incent the states to look at innovative materials, then that really improves our chance to participate in the market," he said.
The group also pushed for changes to the Stafford Act, which mandates that any rebuilding after hurricanes and other disasters use the same materials, replacing like with like, rather than opening the rebuilding up to newer choices.
ACMA said the law is intended to make sure disaster funds aren't misused for expensive, unneeded upgrades, but the result is the federal government will pay to reinstall things like wooden utility poles in storm-prone areas, rather than upgrade to more durable composite poles.
"Superstorm Sandy took out 10,000 utility poles, and they put back exactly the same thing that failed," Dobbins said.Steve Toloken Reeve Funding challenges
A key challenge for any infrastructure bill now will be how to pay for it, Dobbins said. And that complicates assessing how much impact of any new law could have.
The Trump administration proposal is expected to provide about $200 billion in guaranteed federal spending, with the goal of leveraging that with more money from local and state governments and the private sector to get to the $1.5 trillion figure the president used in his State of the Union speech.
But some observers criticize that as an unrealistic expectation for cash-strapped local governments.
There have been some serious financing proposals. In mid-January, the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, called for a 25-cent-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax to raise about $400 billion over 10 years, all for infrastructure rebuilding.
"What's held up some of these major bills, and the challenge, has been the funding piece of this," said Dobbins. "There are certain members of Congress who are absolutely against any kind of increase in taxes. And we're in a deficit situation."
Some ACMA companies said it seems the Trump administration, independent of funding, is also trying to change how projects are reviewed and to encourage other funding streams, through actions like faster permitting, to compensate for the funding issues.
"It has, let's say, relatively uncertain funding," Johnson said. "The rhetoric is it's a $1.5 trillion bill, but the reality is it's a $200 billion federal measure."
Scott Reeve, president and CEO of fabricator Composites Advantage LLC in Dayton, Ohio, said he felt in meetings that the uncertainty of the Trump administration's policymaking process could work to the advantage of composites, in that it could bring more attention to newer materials.
"The fact that in some cases they're not as predictable as past administrations, it means that we find that everyone is paying a little bit more attention to a wider range of things," he said.
He noted plastic composites have only been used in bridges since the mid-1990s, and said the lobbying meetings reminded him of what steel, now of course a default material, went through to gain acceptance more than a century ago.
"It took 30 years for steel to displace wood on bridges here, between like 1880 and 1910, for steel to get to that point as a technology that was accepted on bridges," Reeve said. "We're in that process."