Building the Basics — Alabama’s Infrastructure

Alabama companies weigh in on proposed federal infrastructure package.

An example of infrastructure needing repair. Photo by Cary Norton

President Joe Biden announced his sweeping $2 trillion infrastructure bill in March and the administration prepared months of arduous negotiations with Congress. The country’s infrastructure received a C- on its 2021 report card from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), and while the Biden proposal centers heavily on traditional infrastructure items, it also plans to expand that definition to address issues like climate change and racial equity.

On June 24, the president announced that he and a bipartisan group of senators had reached an agreement on a framework for the bill, one that brings the total cost down to $1.2 trillion, allocating $579 billion in new spending for repairing the nation’s roads, bridges and railways.

Alabama has its own infrastructure challenges. According to the ASCE, 11% of the state’s roads are in need of repair and 5% of its bridges were deemed structurally deficient in 2019. A fact sheet released in May by The Road Information Program (TRIP), a nonprofit organization that researches and evaluates surface transportation issues, claims that 25% of the state’s major roads are in poor or mediocre condition and 49% of its bridges are at least 50 years old. Alabama companies that are deeply involved in the state’s infrastructure have their eyes on Washington and are eager to see when and how this still massive bill will affect them.

“Most of the money for Alabama infrastructure comes from federal programs, so it’s important that we have a robust federal program,” says John Harper, senior vice president of Construction Partners Inc. (CPI). CPI is a leading highway infrastructure company in the Southeast, and most of its projects, such as local and state roadways, interstate highways, airport runways and bridges, are publicly funded. Harper is also the president of Wiregrass Construction, a Dothan-based company founded by his father in the mid-1960s. Wiregrass, a subsidiary of CPI, operates 13 asphalt production plants and five aggregate mining operations throughout the state.

“At CPI, we feel good about the federal program,” Harper says. “And we think it’s important that they’re going to address climate change with this legislation,” which, he points out, is something that is already central to CPI’s mission. Asphalt is the country’s most recycled and reused material and the company prides itself on being environmentally conscious. The big challenge facing CPI, according to Harper, will be ramping up its workforce development to handle the projects.

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The anticipated 30% increase to current federal funding is long overdue according to Kacy Mims, president of The Bridge Builders of Alabama LLC, headquartered in Pelham. The company, which Mims and his partner Cody Corley started in 2014, offers a wide variety of services that include bridge building, drilling, pile driving, shoring, clearing, excavating, crane rental, barge and tugboat work. “[Much of] the federal funding we’re getting now was passed almost 30 years ago,” says Mims, referring to the federal gas tax implemented in 1993. Since then, it’s mostly been left to states.

“But what happens when the states pass these gas taxes, they’re working on state routes and a lot of that money is not spent on the interstates.” Mims, whose company recently did an emergency repair on the interchange of I-59 and I-459 in Trussville, says that, even with the 2019 gas tax increase in Alabama, there simply isn’t enough funding to keep up with the ever-increasing needs across the state. “This past weekend, I was
on I-65 in Chilton County and the traffic just stopped. There’s so much beach traffic coming down I-65, and that’s a weekly problem. And we still have the four lanes that my dad helped build back in the 1960s — the same bridges, no widening of the bridges, no widening of the interstate. You’re still running on 1960s infrastructure.”

Kacy Mims (left) and Cody Corley, of The Bridge Builders of Alabama LLC, took Business Alabama to an array of sites in Birmingham and surrounding rural areas, looking at examples of infrastructure in need of repair. Photo by Cary Norton

When it comes to the president and Congress reaching a compromise, Mims is optimistic, pointing out that representatives — especially those facing an election year — like to be able to point to something physical and take credit. “That’s taxpayer dollars at work that people can see and that people will use daily.” The challenge, Mims acknowledges, is selling a tax increase to the public, but he thinks that pales in comparison to the benefits, particularly job creation. “[The construction industry] is unlike any other industry in the world as far as the amount of people that it really touches, as far as where the money goes and the many hands [that money] goes through. And in the end, you’ve got something you can actually see.”

“We’re all living on this planet together,” he continues, “and we’ve got to be able to compromise with each other. We all talk about bipartisanship, but at some point in time you’ve got to quit talking about it and you’ve got to do something. You can’t keep kicking the can down the road and thinking, ‘I’m going to save money if I don’t fix our infrastructure now.’”

For Janet Kavinoky, vice president of external affairs and corporate communications at Vulcan Materials Co., who sees Washington coalescing around more traditional infrastructure needs, finding a balance between new construction and maintaining existing roads and bridges is key. The Birmingham-based company is the country’s largest producer of aggregate and aggregate-based construction materials.

Rural bridges also show damage from wear and tear. Photo by Cary Norton

“We continue to have a need in Alabama to upgrade our rural roads from two lanes to four lanes, to add capacity that leads to better safety and better connects those communities. But at the same time, if you drive up and down I-65 or I-20 or I-59, you see the need for solid maintenance and in some cases reconstruction of those core interstates.”

On an interstate bridge, a recently mended hole as big as an RV. Photo by Cary Norton

Kavinoky, who was a lead lobbyist on infrastructure investment for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before she joined Vulcan, also points to the need to invest in Alabama airports, inland waterways and the Port of Mobile, a huge economic engine for the state. From her view, whatever form the final bill takes, Vulcan, with its footprint reaching 20 states and the District of Columbia, and the aggregates industry in general, stands to benefit.

“I’m as optimistic as I’ve ever been that we’re going to see something significant that could really be a once-in-a-generation investment, particularly in highways,” she says. “An infrastructure package will undoubtedly be good for Vulcan; we’re just trying to do everything we can to help it pass.”

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