August 21, 2017 6:00 PM, EDT

Funding Plan Must Continue Absent Infrastructure Council, Stakeholders Say

Donald Trump Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News

The White House’s recent announcement that an advisory council on infrastructure matters would not convene as planned should not derail efforts to achieve a long-term funding fix for the country’s roads and bridges, policymakers and freight groups said.

“The need to modernize our infrastructure is still there,” Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), chairman of the Highways and Transit Subcommittee, said in a statement to Transport Topics on Aug. 21.

“Nothing that’s happened in the past week changes the American public’s feeling that rebuilding our highways, bridges, dams and ports remains a national priority,” Graves added while emphasizing a commitment on the part of members of Congress and the administration to develop a “prudent, long-term infrastructure” funding package.

Graves is among the few senior Republican transportation policymakers in the House ensuring stakeholders this month of plans to debate an infrastructure funding bill in the fall. However, a busy legislative calendar dims the prospects in Congress for considering an infrastructure bill this year. Leaders of the Republican-led House and Senate intend to tackle tax policy before taking up infrastructure matters.

Around the commercial transportation sector, several groups insisted the goal of approving a long-term funding bill for major infrastructure projects must continue despite setbacks out of the White House. These groups had anticipated the infrastructure council would create momentum on advancing a $1 trillion, 10-year measure.

But not all is lost, said David Bauer, senior vice president of government relations at the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.

Nothing that’s happened in the past week changes the American public’s feeling that rebuilding our highways, bridges, dams and ports remains a national priority.

Rep. Sam Graves

“With all the folks in the agencies and in the White House involved with infrastructure, I don’t think there is a shortage of qualified people to work on an infrastructure package,” Bauer said.

Sean McNally, a spokesperson for American Trucking Associations, added that the council’s existence is “immaterial to the needs we face in improving our roads and bridges.”

“From the earliest days of this administration, ATA has been engaged with the White House on the need to invest more in our roads and bridges — including forming our own CEO-level Infrastructure Task Force and charging it with helping craft a vision for addressing our pressing infrastructure needs. Members of that Task Force have met with President Trump and other administration officials in an ongoing basis,” McNally told TT. “ATA remains focused on getting Congress and the administration to move forward on this critically important issue.”

The short-lived idea of an infrastructure advisory council fell apart amid the fallout stemming from President Donald Trump’s responses to violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., this month. After Trump responded disjointedly about circumstances surrounding the demonstrations during an Aug. 15 press conference at Trump Tower, leading business executives opted to disassociate themselves with the president.

The heads of industries began stepping down from the White House’s American Manufacturing Council and Strategic and Policy Forum. Trump responded by disbanding the councils and not moving forward with the infrastructure group.

Trump had issued an executive order in July to establish a 15-member advisory council to help White House officials draft an infrastructure proposal that would find “methods to increase public-private partnerships for infrastructure projects, including appropriate statutory or regulatory changes.” The council’s target was $1 trillion over a decade for large-scale projects.

Yet, the council drew harsh criticism almost immediately from the nongovernmental group Food & Water Watch, which sued the president. The group took issue with the infrastructure council’s leadership: billionaires Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth. The developers assisting Trump on infrastructure matters stood to benefit from any policy they proposed, the group alleged.

Since the presidential campaign, Trump has pledged to modernize the airports, highways and freight hubs he described as being of “Third World” status. Trump also bragged about his real estate and construction bona fides, and insisted private sector executives have greater qualifications for advancing infrastructure projects.

Earlier this year, the administration indicated it would propose a plan aimed at drumming up $800 billion from investors through $200 billion in federal funding. Trump also signed an executive order seeking to speed infrastructure development by setting a two-year goal for completion of the permitting process and rolling back environmental rules.

To be sure, Democrats have rejected Trump’s affinity with private sector involvement. In January, Democrats in the Senate unveiled a $1 trillion infrastructure funding blueprint that would be backed primarily by federal dollars.

Meanwhile, the American Society of Civil Engineers has projected a $2 trillion shortfall over the next decade for infrastructure projects in need of upgrades.