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December 14, 2017 3:15 PM, EST

Trump White House Ready for Infrastructure in January

Infrastructure Building John Locher/Associated Press

Congress and the Trump administration indicated they will finally debate infrastructure funding parameters with transportation leaders when the new year kicks off.

D.J. Gribbin, the president’s adviser on infrastructure, who has been careful not to reveal too many details about the plan, affirmed a launch date will come sometime next month.

Transportation executives, particularly in the freight sector, have been waiting. The White House and the transportation secretary had said the plan would be unveiled during President Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office.

But as the rewrite of tax policy inches closer to reaching the president’s desk, the wait may soon be over for learning about the 70-page memo breaking down a 10-year, $200 billion plan meant to spark $800 billion in private sector investments.

The memo has been kept secret, while White House officials met with governors, mayors and industry stakeholders for insight and perspective on the funding needs for the country’s network of freight corridors, air travel system and transit programs.

Gribbin

“We have a president who is a builder, who actually has been responsible for building very significant projects,” Gribbin told an audience at the Hudson Institute Dec. 12. Previewing the president’s plan, he added that states will be asked to invest heavily in projects of regional significance. Or, as he put it, “If you, as a state or local elected official, are willing to create a new revenue stream for infrastructure, we as the federal government want to partner with you in doing that.”

Paving the way for more toll roads, and accelerating the permitting process of construction projects also have been proposals Gribbin and his colleagues have thus far revealed.

On the big question of whether to increase federal fuel taxes, the Trump administration is sticking with a neutral stance, meaning it has not immediately ruled it out. In a brief interview with Transport Topics, Gribbin noted, “Our position has not changed.”

Since 1993, the federal tax on diesel has been 24.4 cents per gallon, and the gas tax has been 18.4 cents per gallon.

A Dec. 11 meeting between Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), the top transportation policymaker in the House, Trump and his team also has helped solidify the expectation that the stage has been set for negotiations to commence next month.

“I appreciate the president’s strong leadership on this issue that is critical to improving our economy and creating jobs, something that matters to every American,” Shuster said. “We had a good, productive discussion, and I look forward to working with the president, the administration and my congressional colleagues as we move into the new year to identify specific proposals and priorities.”

While Shuster suggested he would schedule the consideration of an infrastructure bill next year, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the top Democrat on the transportation panel, has come out strongly against an expansive privatization effort for the country’s transportation network. He described it as classic devolution.

“To say somehow we’re going to go back to the good old days, where the states and the local jurisdictions take care of themselves in a just-in-time world economy, competing with countries like China that’s putting billions and billions of dollars into modern infrastructure while our 1950s, ’60s, ’70s infrastructure is falling apart … [$200 billion] is a drop in the bucket,” DeFazio told CQ Roll Call on Dec. 6.

Aside from pushback on the part of Democrats, Shuster and fellow Republicans will find it difficult to advance a large legislative proposal during an election year. Astute political observers expect the 2018 midterms to become a referendum of Trump’s policies, and Capitol Hill often halts legislating as elections near.

Infrastructure was among the key issues Trump promised. His transportation team blamed a convoluted debate over the country’s health care system and the overhauling of the tax code for leaving infrastructure affairs on the sidelines.

Since Trump’s inauguration, most infrastructure funding advocates expected the new administration to advance quickly on a multi-year funding fix. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Society of Civil Engineers and American Trucking Associations, for instance, urged officials to consider increasing fuel taxes.

“ATA has crafted an infrastructure package that works for the trucking industry and the entire American economy, one that provides significant, sustainable investment in our roads and bridges. We look forward to working with the administration and Congress, and we hope they will support our proposal or come together on a sensible alternative plan to address this truly critical need,” Darrin Roth, ATA’s director of highway operations, told TT.