Jonathan French: Infrastructure can and should matter to all of us

This is the start of something. We’ve been neglecting infrastructure for so long there’s a ton of stuff to be done,” Jonathan French, president of our Transportation Chapter, said of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. “This gets things moving in the right direction.”

There’s a couple of things anyone familiar with MSEA-SEIU Member Jonathan French knows: He’s a big fan of the Baltimore Orioles, even when they’re 43 games out of first place – and he loves to talk about, of all things, transportation infrastructure.

So with Congress on the brink of passing the largest-ever investment in infrastructure in our nation’s history in the form of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, you can bet Jonathan is all over it.

“This is the start of something. We’ve been neglecting infrastructure for so long there’s a ton of stuff to be done,” Jonathan, president of our Transportation Chapter, said of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. “This gets things moving in the right direction.”

Jonathan, who lives in Hallowell, works as the engineering data manager for the Contracts Section of the Maine Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Project Development. He’s responsible for the DOT’s computer-aided design and support. In his spare time, he, along with a few like-minded citizens across our nation who connected online, have taken it upon themselves to build a nonprofit group, Build the Era. Its purpose is to help everyday people in our communities, states and nation advocate for rethinking and reimagining how infrastructure – everything from roads and bridges to bike paths and walkways – can and should be integrated safely and responsibly into our communities and daily lives. The project came about on Twitter among a handful of individuals, including Jonathan, who supported and volunteered for the 2020 presidential campaign of Pete Buttigieg. In February 2021, Buttigieg began serving as our nation’s transportation secretary in the Biden administration.

Jonathan, age 42, for years has been active on Twitter. With Buttigieg as transportation secretary, Jonathan saw an opportunity to focus public attention on infrastructure and to help people advocate around it in their communities. He had previously posted on the social media platform Medium on topics like green infrastructure such as roundabouts, and transportation funding. That led to an invitation to join what would become Build the Era to help organize and present a webinar for an introduction to the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), something Jonathan had never done before.

“Being able to help educate people to do their own advocacy was pretty cool,” he said, explaining how he and his online colleagues earlier this year decided to create Build the Era to help fellow citizens advocate around infrastructure. Since then, he’s presented in webinars about the prospective U.S. DOT funding legislation. “Then the President put out his American Jobs Plan, which includes the infrastructure legislation, so we started doing webinars on the different aspects of it: climate, safety, equity and jobs.”

Advocating in support of the American Jobs Plan, and now the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, fits in well with Jonathan’s values because President Biden wants to create more union jobs. Jonathan, who serves on Build the Era’s advisory board, has used its online platform to share his labor and transportation knowledge. “It was a bunch of worlds colliding,” he said, explaining his professional work, his personal values and the urgent needs he sees not just for substantial infrastructure investments but also for rethinking the role of infrastructure in our communities.

All eyes are now on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill endorsed by President Biden, which is up for votes in Congress in the coming weeks. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill is the largest-ever investment in public transit, passenger rail, bridges, and drinking water and wastewater in our nation’s history. It ensures access to high-speed internet and tackles climate change by investing in clean energy transmission.

Jonathan, along with our union, is supporting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and calling on Congress to pass it. He said Maine would stand to gain over $1.3 billion under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill through 2026. It would mean almost $70 million a year for Maine’s transportation system. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “Our unmet funding need is now over $200 million a year, so it’s a big chunk of that.”Jonathan says there are two things we all can and should do right away to address infrastructure needs throughout our communities: 1) Remind

Congressman Jared Golden and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree to vote for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill and persuade their colleagues to vote for it as well; and 2) Join Build the Era at buildtheera.com/join and learn how to advocate around infrastructure projects in our local communities that could be funded with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill. Build the Era is also on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tiktok and Twitch.

Jonathan sees the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill as a way for our nation to rethink its approach to infrastructure.

“Transportation has solved a lot of problems. It’s also created a lot of problems,” he said. “The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill starts to address those problems. It puts projects under a magnifying glass of climate and equity, when that magnifying glass wasn’t there before.”

Jonathan also sees an urgent need for universal road user education in our nation. He’s not just talking about education for driver-aged folks. He’s talking K-12 and teaching not just how to drive cars but overall transportation safety involving pedestrians and cyclists. “That’s something we’re missing in the United States,” he said. “We’ve had almost 40,000 deaths a year in the United States. We have one of the worst road user safety records in the developed world.”

That record shouldn’t come as a surprise, Jonathan said, because only 32 states in our nation require formal driver education to be a licensed driver. Also, only individuals seeking a license, and who can afford to do so, have the opportunity for formal road user education. He wants to change that by removing all barriers to road user education so that eventually all Americans will be able to learn about road user safety and vulnerability.

Jonathan knows about highway safety and design from his experience. If you drive around Maine, odds are you drove through some of his projects. He designed the Orono roundabout project that opened in Orono in 2018 and earned MaineDOT the 2019 Kitty Breskin Project Award presented by the Maine Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He also designed the West Gardiner Service Plaza roundabout that opened in 2015.

In addition to serving as president of our Transportation Chapter, Jonathan serves as the Labor co-chair of the State Employee Health Commission, which is responsible for administering the State Employee Health Plan. A member of our political action program, PASER, Political Action by Service Employees and Retirees, Jonathan also testifies regularly before the Maine Legislature, on his own time, in support of fair wages for DOT workers and responsible highway funding. He routinely cites data and statistics in his testimony. “I do my homework,” he said.

Updated: September 14, 2021 — 10:30 AM