Infrastructure Plan in Works

White House Proposal Still up in the Air

Jerry Hagstrom
By  Jerry Hagstrom , DTN Political Correspondent
Rural areas have a lot of projects for repair and upgrade as they wait on President Donald Trump to release his infrastructure plan. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton)

WASHINGTON (DTN) -- The White House is still working on its infrastructure proposal, but a special assistant to the president sees the plan as a potential major boost in job creation and bipartisanship.

D.J. Gribbin, the special assistant to President Donald Trump on infrastructure, spoke recently at a forum sponsored by the Wall Street Journal. Gribbin and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel did not focus on rural needs, but the conversation did offer some insights into how an infrastructure bill might develop.

Gribbin said the timing of the Trump administration's infrastructure proposal is "still up in the air," but he noted, "Infrastructure is one of the most important and popular things we are doing right now" because it is both bipartisan and a federal, state and local initiative.

Emanuel, who was President Barack Obama's first White House chief of staff, said that infrastructure is "not a one-trick pony" and that there are many elements to it and many methods of financing. There is a place for public-private partnerships, Emanuel said, but such partnerships cannot be used for everything.

"You need new revenue," he said, adding that he favors increasing the gas tax.

Building roads and schools in Iraq and Afghanistan were not done with tax credits, he noted.

Gribbin and Emanuel seemed to agree that the American public will support some form of taxation or fees to pay for infrastructure if they know what they are getting.

"The problem is we have created concern about where money is going," Gribbin said. He noted that the "bridge to nowhere" fight a few years ago was an example of people being afraid to send their money to Washington. That project in Alaska was part of a 2006 highway bill, but eventually ended up being canceled in 2015 after years of controversy.

Emanuel said he would segregate the funding, perhaps putting it in a trust fund. Emanuel added that the fiscally conservative wing of the Republican Party might support infrastructure if there are projects in House members' districts. Even if there is a pull-back in environmental regulations, he said, if there are apprenticeships for minorities, "Democrats will be open to it."

Emanuel said that the environmental regulation process should be speeded up, but he urged Gribbin to keep the focus on the projects, not on an ideological campaign to override environmental regulation.

"We can be sensible about environmental policy without losing environment quality," said Emanuel, who has undertaken a wide variety of infrastructure modernization projects in Chicago.

Gribbin, who previously worked in the private sector on the financing of public-private partnerships, said he is taking "a big view of what infrastructure is" including roads, highways, veterans projects, air traffic control and housing.

One of his major goals, he said, is to work across agency lines.

"I think there is a benefit of thinking that way. We are very fragmented in the federal government," he said.

In an interview last week with the New York Times, Trump said he believes the infrastructure plan would get tremendous support from Democrats, as well as good support from Republicans. The president is still looking at $1 trillion in investment, he said.

"We may take that trillion, and we may also in addition use public/private. But we're talking about an investment of a trillion dollars," Trump said. He added, "On roads, on bridges, on many different things. And it's also going to be -- we have to refurbish to a large extent. You know, we can build new highways, which are much more expensive."


Jerry Hagstrom