President Trump's top aide for infrastructure, who has played a key role in crafting the president's project investment plan, assured state officials that the administration is aware of the looming shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund and believes Congress will address it.
D.J. Gribbin, special assistant to the president, told state department of transportation executives that the president's proposal was just the opening bid in what he said would be multiple rounds of discussions with lawmakers and stakeholders on how to boost investment in transportation and other infrastructure.
Gribbin made his remarks in a March 1 luncheon address to the Washington Briefing of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, along with the Road Gang, a Washington, D.C., group of transportation professionals.
While introducing Gribbin to the audience, AASHTO Executive Director Bud Wright noted that through the past year the presidential aide had regularly reached out to AASHTO and state officials directly to involve them in the discussions about President Trump's infrastructure plan.
That plan's proposed steps to speed up projects by shortening the federal permitting process reflects the views of many state DOT officials, who say they can move major transportation improvements into the construction phase more quickly while protecting the environment if federal agencies can shorten their reviews.
One of the concerns voiced by state officials and industry groups since the White House released its plan was that it left out any mention of the trust fund and any ideas on how to shore it up over the long term. At present, the trust fund is on course to run out of enough money in 2020 to cover its project spending obligations.
But Gribbin emphasized that the White House was aware of the trust fund issues and wants to address them. And he said Trump is the first president since Bill Clinton in the 1990s to talk about possibly increasing federal motor fuel user fees to help fund transportation investment.
"Yes, we need a long-term solution for the Highway Trust Fund," Gribbin said in his prepared remarks. "The president has been clear that he supports working with Congress on finding a solution that is more than just a short-term, kick-the-can-down-the-road solution."
He also explained his view of how the administration's proposed $200 billion in new federal investment could leverage an additional $1 trillion or more in nonfederal project spending, by providing federal "seed money" to match funding packages proposed by state DOT officials and other stakeholders.
One audience member asked why the administration in its proposal takes the view that increasing federal infrastructure loan programs would be successful now, when Congress tried it before and found that not enough project sponsors took advantage of the expanded loan availability.
Gribbin responded that it could work because the president's proposal would expand the long-term, low-interest loans "to more asset classes" including airports and seaports, which could then use the federal credit for projects they directly finance. Project sponsors that use such federal loans now often tout the savings they allow compared with financing the projects in regular capital markets, and how they can plow those savings into more improvements.
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