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The AI Interview: Keith Pugh, President, American Public Works Association

APWA President talks public works initiatives, technology trends and the 2023 Public Works Expo

American Infrastructure: What does the Western water crisis and overall drought say and mean for the nation and the future of infrastructure?

Keith Pugh: The increasing frequency of drought, particularly in the West, shows that we need to make our infrastructure even more resilient to changes in climate by building with consideration of more extreme weather scenarios than we have in the past. We need to be prepared to adapt and provide communities with not just the resources, but also the flexibility to employ more aggressive conservation strategies such as water recycling and greener infrastructure. We must continue to invest in better modeling so we can better assess risks and are prepared to leverage more with less. The solutions that may have worked in the past are not necessarily suited to the problems of the present and future.

AI: How are technology trends shaping (or reshaping) United States infrastructure?

KP: In an age where technology advances at an exponential pace, public works departments are constantly finding new ways to bring safety, economy, sustainability and service to their communities. To help our members stay in the know on which industry-changing endeavors are on the horizon (or in some cases, already here), the American Public Works Association (APWA) began the Top 5 Trending Technologies survey in 2018.

The top trending technologies in public works for 2023 are asset management technologies; drones/unmanned aircraft system (UAS) technology; electric vehicles; geographic information systems; and technology for field crews.

One area in particular that is reshaping infrastructure is electric vehicles and supporting the technology by converting public fleets of vehicles and equipment. In addition, public works agencies are providing infrastructure for electric vehicles by installing charging stations in public areas that are convenient for the public and may also support economic development.

APWA has created several resources to assist public works professionals with electric vehicle education. Technician Training and Maintenance Planning for an Electric Fleet, Cold Weather Challenges and Considerations for an Electrified Fleet, Total Cost of Electric Fleet Ownership, Electric Vehicle (EV) Charger Implementation, City of Fort Wayne Case Study and more are all available on our newly redesigned Resource Center.

It’s not all rainbows and unicorns, there are challenges with electric vehicle fleets in areas such as rural areas due to the range vehicles can travel and the amount of time required to charge the vehicles. If electric vehicles and equipment cannot be used for an entire shift, additional equipment and vehicles would need to be purchased which is a plus for redundancy but increases the cost of the equipment and maintenance requirements. In addition, the personnel would lose time returning to their facility to switch to a charged vehicle or equipment during their shift.

The voting for the 2024 Trending Technologies in Public Works will begin at APWA’s Public Works Expo (PWX) in San Diego, California from Aug. 27-30.

AI: How does connecting communities via high-speed internet (such as the Internet for All initiative) benefit infrastructure?

KP: The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) authorizes $65 billion in federal funding to expand broadband to all communities across the U.S. According to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), one in five U.S. households are not connected to the internet.  

Specifically related to infrastructure, making certain all types of communities – small, large, rural, urban and tribal – connected to modern technology protects public health and safety, and provides economic opportunity to these communities. Our modern society is so connected through the internet, and we rely on it every day to provide educational opportunities, and healthcare, monitor our dams, protect drinking water and process wastewater, monitor traffic and respond to roadway incidents, safeguard our critical infrastructure from nefarious intrusions and actors – the technology and its reliability is critical.

Public works professionals are responsible for managing the multiple uses of our public right of way (ROW), which exists to benefit the greater good of the public and our communities. ROW is used for essential services such as transportation (rail, vehicles, pedestrian, bicycle, etc.), power distribution, telecommunications, heating fuel distribution, water distribution and wastewater collection, emergency services equipment and other critical infrastructure. APWA advocates strongly for making sure public works professionals are at the table and part of the decision-making process when it comes to operating the public ROW, and to which internet connectivity is essential.

AI: Are there any public works initiatives or policies you feel should be more widespread?

KP: APWA has achieved this on the federal level, but we believe every state should recognize public works as first responders. President Bush did it in 2003 with a Presidential Policy Directive and the House and Senate unanimously agreed with the idea in National Public Works Week resolutions this year. 

Mississippi (2010) and New Hampshire (2022) have recognized public works as first responders with legislation and APWA would love to see the other 48 states follow suit.

Many public works professionals are first responders because they are often first on the scene of disasters and last to leave – no matter the peril.

AI: What can people expect from this year’s PWX?

KP: On Aug. 27-30, the APWA will welcome more than 6,000 public works professionals to its annual PWX taking place at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.

We’re excited to be hosting one of our largest PWX events ever for public works professionals. We expect attendance numbers to surpass recent years thanks to a fantastic location, a robust educational program and a trade show floor chocked full of the latest and greatest products and service providers.

Throughout the four-day event, attendees may choose from more than 145 education sessions covering relevant topics such as leadership, professional development, emergency planning and response, street construction and maintenance, traffic engineering and transportation solutions, engineering and technology, water/wastewater, stormwater, fleet services, solid waste management, facilities construction and maintenance, grounds maintenance and urban forestry, sustainability and resiliency and utility and right-of-way management. Keynote speakers Morris Morrison, Jessica Kriegel and Neal Petersen will share additional inspiration on such diverse offerings as becoming a kinder human being, creating a positive workplace culture and overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

Exhibitors from more than 400 companies, the most in the past decade, will showcase their latest products, services and technologies that address many common public works issues. Kicking off the conference will be a ticketed reception on the USS Midway, and attendees will also get to cheer on their colleagues at the National Equipment Roadeo, a fun event that tests the skills of heavy equipment operators. New this year is exclusive coverage by WebsEdge which will produce daily highlights and in-depth reports for PWX TV which will be broadcast online, on YouTube and onsite during the event.

This year’s PWX will be an incredible place to benchmark the latest best practices and grow and make new industry connections. Anyone who works in public works will find something fresh and new to take back to their local community.

AI: Are there any new initiatives that the APWA is excited about?

KP: APWA strives to be the best resource for public works and infrastructure now and into the future.  Due in part to the passage of IIJA in 2021, public works professionals are actively looking for the latest knowledge, training, certification, accreditation, products and workforce development tools. To continue serving the needs of this rapidly growing marketplace, we have made a significant investment of time and money in the development and implementation of a new association management system and online presence, www.apwa.org.

Our new website features a fresh, modern design with new ways to navigate using dynamic menus, integrated search options, and a unified shopping cart experience. Members will find it even easier to join or renew a membership, purchase a publication or eLearning course, register for PWX or Snow conferences, or purchase APWA apparel. In addition to being optimized and mobile-friendly, users will find immersive opportunities for engagement through the APWA Connect online network of communities and groups.

We are constantly evaluating how we can improve our members’ experiences by making our programs and services even more engaging and relevant to their daily lives. Our new AMS and website will allow APWA to grow our programs and services, be sustainable, and meet our members where they are on their career paths.

“We are constantly evaluating how we can improve our members’ experiences by making our programs and services even more engaging and relevant to their daily lives,” said Grayson. “Our new AMS and website will allow APWA to grow our programs and services, be sustainable, and meet our members where they are on their career paths.”

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