DJ Gribbin, presidential special assistant for infrastructure policy, right, interviewed by Roll Call reporter Jacob Fischler.

By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA

President Donald Trump’s administration this week confirmed it will provide its long-anticipated infrastructure proposal to Congress in January. The federal package would be split into four buckets: funding for states and localities that promise to take on more of the financial burden of infrastructure building and upkeep; block grants for rural areas; existing federal loan programs; and money for high-impact, “transformational” projects.

Presidential special assistant for infrastructure policy DJ Gribbin promised a “robust debate” about the future of transportation investment and the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). At a Dec. 6 Roll Call newspaper event, he reiterated the administration’s desire to cut other parts of the federal budget to generate $200 billion in incentives to leverage $1 trillion of infrastructure investment over 10 years.

Gribbin said HTF-supported program budgets will have to match federal motor fuels tax revenues rather than rely on other sources of money, such as those used to bridge the gap in the 2015 surface transportation law. He also noted the Trump administration has taken a “neutral” position on whether to hike the federal gas tax that supports the HTF.

The administration first signaled its thoughts about the HTF and the $200 billion earlier this year in its FY2018 budget. See ARTBA’s analysis of the impact on U.S. Department of Transportation highway and transportation programs.

Gribbin said the administration’s ongoing regulatory reforms are “the most boring but most impactful” aspect of its emerging infrastructure plan. Keeping permitting decision within the two-year window demanded by the administration will produce a huge economic benefit, he said, adding the regulatory strings that come with federal money increase project costs and slow construction.

Gribbin downplayed the federal role in infrastructure development in favor of state and local governments and the private sector. He framed the wave of successful state and local transportation funding initiatives as evidence that taxpayers trust governments closer to home more than Washington.

“There’s a huge accountability problem,” he said. “Taxpayers don’t trust the federal government to invest.”

House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who also appeared at the Roll Call event, has long supported an indexed gas tax increase to help the HTF. He scoffed at the notion of generating $200 billion for infrastructure through cuts to healthcare and welfare.

DeFazio also blasted as “classic devolution” the idea of more state and local government driven projects, which he said will lead to uneven infrastructure development across the nation, such as what occurred during the first half of the 20th century before the Interstate Highway program.

“That was bad policy in the 1950s, it’s ridiculous in a world economy today,” he said, pointing to national infrastructure development in China.

DeFazio said the last two surface transportation reauthorizations contained plenty of regulatory streamlining measures that have not yet been fully implemented. “The problem is lack of funding, it is not analysis paralysis.”