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Women Break Ground in Shaping Infrastructure Plans in Congress

May 6, 2021, 9:00 AM

President Joe Biden and men on powerful House and Senate committees are laying out their visions of an ambitious infrastructure strategy they want to get enacted this year. But women are likely to steer much of the work as Congress gets ready to begin moving legislation that could cost in the trillions of dollars.

For the first time in history, staffs of both the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee are led by women, and the subcommittees overseeing transportation programs also have female staff directors. The rise of senior women staffers mirrors the increasing number of female lawmakers, with 142 women in voting positions now—or about 26% of seats—up from just 26 women in the late 1980s.

“Women do have a much bigger role than they did 20 years ago,” said Kathy Dedrick, who was named the House transportation committee’s first female chief of staff when Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) became chair two years ago. “It’s not just at the staff level, but across the board. Women are in leadership positions, and they weren’t in the past.”

Kathy Dedrick, chief of staff for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Photo Illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte/Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

Biden proposed a $2.25 trillion infrastructure package, including about $621 billion for transportation, and billions more for water projects, digital upgrades, and other areas under a more expansive definition of infrastructure. Now, from the broad outlines in the president’s plan, Dedrick and other women in top staff jobs will help set transportation, environmental, broadband, and other policy for decades to come. They also could decide each state’s share of a massive funding pie. Lawmakers plan to earmark billions of dollars for projects.

In contrast, the development of the Interstate Highway System in the second half of the 20th century, that era’s biggest public works program, was shaped largely by men, with a narrower focus on transport of goods and national defense.

DeFazio said women are well equipped to shape these policy solutions. Although men are “not insensitive” to issues, he said having female voices in the room is needed for the complexity and breadth of what the committee deals with, such as transit and commuter needs of parents and care providers.

“Things we’ve done, like mandating that airports have to have booths for nursing, gender-specific things we’ve done, that just hadn’t been considered previously,” DeFazio said in an interview. “I think that has made a tremendous difference.”

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He also said women can drive a hard bargain. Dedrick, who came to Capitol Hill as his first congressional page, cut her teeth on the 2005 transportation bill, which set records for its spending and long list of earmarks.

“We negotiated that bill for months; she’d be calling me to come over to the Capitol at three in the morning,” DeFazio said. “It just went on day after day, night after night.”

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said he detailed a woman to lead the Environment and Public Works Committee staff after he became chairman this year. He said naming Mary Frances Repko to the post is consistent with his overall approach: his chief of staff in his personal office is a woman and most of his aides—including his transportation adviser—are female.

“I surround myself with people smarter than me,” Carper said in an interview. “My wife says it’s not hard to find them. As it turns out, a lot of them are women.”

Mary Frances Repko, chief of staff for the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works
Photo Illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte/Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

As Delaware governor in the 1990s, Carper said he also named Anne Canby as his secretary of transportation. Canby had also been New Jersey’s first female transportation commissioner.

Canby, now director at OneRail Coalition, said women often tend to focus on listening versus telling, an approach that helps bring in different transportation perspectives—including from those who use transit and walk to get where they need to go.

“You got to look like the people you’re serving,” Canby said in an interview. “If you have just one type of person and perspective, then you’re never going to do anything except that.”

Men are still prominent in pushing the infrastructure plans, with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg taking a visible role in selling the package to Congress and the public. But behind the scenes, women staffers have been busy hammering out the details of the legislation.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the Environment and Public Works ranking member, said in an interview she is also relying on women as she prepares for negotiations with the White House to win a smaller and more traditional package than Biden proposed.

“Girls get the job done,” Capito said of her staff, adding that they bring a new perspective to the table.

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Dedrick’s team at the House transportation committee also includes women in other top slots. Jill Harrelson, who previously served on the Senate Budget Committee, is the full committee’s new chief counsel and Alice Koethe serves as deputy counsel.

The Subcommittee on Highways and Transit staff is led by Helena Zyblikewycz, a 14-year veteran there. Before joining the panel, Zyblikewycz represented the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO during negotiations over the 2005 highway bill.

The subcommittee will be drafting the legislation and figuring out details, Zyblikewycz said in an interview. “We have a strong team of six, and four of us are women.”

Helena Zyblikewycz, staff director for the House’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit
Photo Illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte/Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where Dedrick also worked, previously had female staff directors, Repko said in an interview. But having both panels headed by women is new—as are the transportation challenges, she said.

“I’m not sure that any of us 10 or 15 years ago would have imagined the availability, even in Washington, D.C., of alternative modes like being able to get a JUMP Bike on your phone, or being able to use an Uber or Lyft,” said Repko, who has a long-standing interest in urban development. “We’re also looking at climate change. Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in our economy.”

Rebecca Higgins, Carper’s senior transportation adviser, said in an interview that men long dominated in engineering, and looked to build roads for maximum efficiency and resilience.

“There’s more and more recognition of our transportation decisions for broader community outcomes,” said Higgins, previously a Transportation Department analyst examining issues such as environmental reviews and project delivery.

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‘Unmatched’ Expertise

Aiding the effort to write the transportation bill will be Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), the first female chair of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over safety, rail, and aviation. The Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee is led by Chairman Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), but with Laura Swanson as staff director. That panel is working on the bill’s mass transit portions.

Capito’s team already drafted a bill proposing $600 billion for traditional infrastructure, paid for with user fees and money left over from previous pandemic relief packages.

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Her top committee aides include Lauren Baker, who previously served as policy adviser to former Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Murphie Barrett, senior adviser for infrastructure and economic development, hails from the House transportation committee, where she worked for former Chair Bill Shuster (R-Pa.).

“Their expertise in transportation issues is unmatched, and they have a great history in working with the department and the House side,” Capito said.

Transportation and Infrastructure ranking member Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) detailed Corey Cooke as general counsel to look out for House GOP interests. He described her as a “great example of the smart, effective, determined female leaders” he’s hired over the years. In addition to other committee service, Cooke was a Trump administration appointee at the General Services Administration.

Corey Cooke, general counsel for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Republicans
Photo Illustration: Jonathan Hurtarte/Bloomberg Industry Group; Photo: Handout

“We can’t keep delaying infrastructure,” Cooke said in interview, adding that the goal is to have “a bipartisan agreement in place that moves the needle forward.” She said she feels fortunate to have always seen women in leadership roles both as members and congressional staffers whose voices are heard.

There has been a shift from years past when Canby, from OneRail Coalition, said she was told she was “pretty good for a woman” when she led state transportation departments—while others questioned her qualifications.

“I can assure you they were not ready for a woman, particularly to lead,” Canby said. When she got comments that doubted her abilities, Canby said “you just stay focused on what you’re trying to do.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Nancy Ognanovich in Washington at nognanov@bgov.com; Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at ayukhananov@bloombergindustry.com; Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com

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