Darren M. Benoit, P.E., is an active member of the New Hampshire Section of ASCE. He works as a senior transportation manager for McFarland Johnson, Inc. In his role, he works on highway projects in Concord, New Hampshire and with clients throughout New England as a technical lead on projects.
As a Key Contact for almost five years, Darren has advocated on a variety of issues, including an increase to the state gas tax to fund investments in transportation infrastructure. New Hampshire successfully passed a modest gas tax increase last month, making it the first state to sign a gas tax increase into law this year, a helpful mechanism for funding transportation projects.
If you are interested in becoming involved in ASCE’s Key Contact program and promoting the profession through advocacy, you can learn more information and sign up at asce.org.
How did you become interested in and get involved in advocacy for your profession?
Although I had been peripherally aware of state and national transportation issues, the focus of my advocacy work began when I accepted a volunteer position as the New Hampshire Section Government Relations Chair. My first Fly-In was the start of building stronger relationships with our federal congressional delegation. After attending, I also accepted the role to lead an update to our state’s Infrastructure Report Card.
What issues have you highlighted/focused on when communicating with your legislators?
Each year seems to bring its own challenges. At the national level, it is often advocating for the reauthorization of major bills such as the Surface Transportation or Aviation Investment Acts. At the state level we work closely with other professional societies to evaluate legislation being proposed. There is a lot more variation at that level including changes that would affect our licensing, liability issues, infrastructure funding bills, and more recently trying to protect engineers when they are called upon during disaster relief.
What levels of government have you focused your efforts on? Is there something that prompted you to focus your efforts there? Do you offer your expertise beyond that of a traditional citizen lobbyist for the public’s benefit?
My focus has been primarily on the state and federal levels. We are a small state with limited resources so we have to focus where we can have the most impact.
A single long-term relationship can make a significant difference on the federal level. At the state level partnering with other engineering societies can help identify key legislation for our businesses and for infrastructure, allowing the individual groups to focus on the key issues.
Each year we provide written testimony and oral testimony on select bills which I would see as the traditional advocacy, but I think our most effective measures are in communication. The optimum is to build a two-way relationship with your state and federal representatives such that they reach out to you to provide information on issues. This has included providing support at press conferences, providing names of professionals who can participate in conference calls, and provide the information needed for them to argue your point. One of the best tools we can provide our legislators is an updated Report Card at both the state and federal level. It has been a universal tool often cited in other documents, in congress, and even in the governor’s State of the State address.
How do you gather information and prepare to do your advocacy work?
The first year is normally the hardest. The Report Card is a great framework if your state has one. Most have references to show the source and date of the information that can be updated if it has become stale. Over time I have built a network of professionals within the private, municipal, and state sectors that can provide up-to-date information in a very short amount of time.
What have you learned through your activities as an ASCE advocate and citizen lobbyist?
First, communication is key. Stay in contact with legislative contacts regularly instead of waiting for that single most critical issue. Posting articles on social media platforms, like Facebook, so other ASCE members are aware of the issues is also beneficial. Second is collaboration. There are many related professional groups that have common ground and can pool resources. Public works officials, contractors, and non-engineering groups often share our views and can provide a solid support base. Third is to not get discouraged. Stay positive and work long term. Billions of dollars in infrastructure investment is going to take a lot of discussion before headway will be made.
Has the experience helped you improve skills you utilize personally or professionally?
This is an area where all types of personalities are present. Learning to communicate better with a broad variety of people is a skill that transcends all people and professions.
What has been challenging about being an advocate?
Trying to maintain that pesky day job. The intensity of a career in engineering allows for limited time to dedicate to advocacy.
What methods have you found effective in working through those challenges?
Collaboration. When I can’t attend a hearing personally, having others who can see that my written testimony is submitted is a great benefit. Building a Government Relations Committee that can spread the work is also important.
What sort of pitfalls or setbacks have you encountered? And how did you overcome them?
Most times compared to the oppositions’ lobbyists we are underfunded, have less time, and are volunteers. We also typically have less political experience and are not as politically connected. At best, we are still trying to get citizens to decide to invest more money in our infrastructure. We prepared a consistent message based upon facts and prepared for long debate. Define success in smaller increments. Most of our issues are cyclical and require regular attention to continue to make progress.
What have you found rewarding about your efforts?
The relationships built along the way. At first it may not feel like you are making a difference, but consistently being involved builds credibility.
Is there a particularly memorable experience you can share?
After the effort to publish the State Report Card, it was very rewarding when state officials began to cite or quote from the document.
Have you felt that your efforts have made a difference?
Certainly! The education of the next generation in advocacy. I am inspired by the number of younger members willing to reach out to their legislators and some to even testify in front of the legislature in support of the bills. Advocacy is not a natural extension of our training as engineers. A number of these younger engineers have joined me at the Fly-In and have started building their own relationships at the state and federal levels.
What advice would you give to someone interested in getting involved in advocacy?
Jump in with both feet, don’t get discouraged, and learn from others who have more experience in advocacy. Other like-minded organizations often have lobbyists who can help show you the ropes and ASCE-National has been an amazing resource for ASCE-NH.