Trump advisor defends White House infrastructure proposal

Trump advisor defends White House infrastructure proposal
© Greg Nash

White House infrastructure policy adviser D.J. Gribbin is fiercely defending the Trump administration's infrastructure proposal, as it continues to draw criticism from Democrats.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE’s proposal, released last month, would inject $200 billion of federal seed money to create $1.5 trillion in total spending on infrastructure over 10 years. Half of the federal funds would go toward an incentive program to match financing from state and local governments investing in rebuilding projects. 

The idea is that the private sector, in addition to funding from states and local municipalities, will foot much of the bill as the administration seeks to finance projects where local governments have a stake.

But Democrats have panned the plan, saying the $200 billion in federal seed money is not enough to impact a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. public works. 

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They've also hit the administration for cutting other transportation funds in the new budget, and argued that the plan pushes too much financial responsibility onto states.

Speaking at a gathering of state transportation officials, Gribbin dismissed the notion that the administration’s framework relinquishes the federal government’s historic role in infrastructure, instead arguing the plan works to empower states to make their own rebuilding choices.

“We still support a strong federal government role in funding infrastructure,” Gribbin told a luncheon hosted by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “But it’s important to note that every dollar invested in infrastructure comes out of the pockets of taxpayers.”

Taxpayers, Gribbin argued, would rather have their money go toward the local government than to Washington, D.C. He also maintained that the White House blueprint is in line with the traditional pace of transportation policy.

“We are not changing the status quo,” he said. “If anything, we’re just perpetuating the trend that exists currently.”

Environmental groups have also slammed a component of the plan promoted by Trump, which would decrease the permitting process down to two years. Those groups argue it will inhibit environmental protections.

"[B]y rubberstamping permits for corporations to build oil pipelines, dams, and toxic waste dumps, gutting environmental and labor laws, and severely limiting the public’s ability to hold government accountable will only make our communities – and our nation – a more dangerous place," Sierra Club said in a statement last month.

Gribbin pushed back at these types of criticisms, saying it's all about streamlining the permit process.

“We’re just saying we’re going to do this amount of work, but we’re going to do it far more efficiently than we do currently,” he said.

The White House plan, meant as a framework for Congress to craft legislation, also aims to lift the 1956 ban on states collecting tolls on interstates to use for local infrastructure.

Opponents criticize the proposal's reliance on tolls for infrastructure revenue. 

Echoing Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoGeorge H.W. Bush remembered at Kennedy Center Honors Trump, first lady attend special Supreme Court ceremony for Kavanaugh 5 ways Democrats can turn the House win into future success MORE, Gribbin said removing the prohibition doesn't mean the administration is pushing for more tolls.

“We’re agnostic in terms of how you’re paying for it. We just want you generating new revenues for infrastructure,” he told state officials. “And so we want to eliminate any barriers that are between you and generating new revenues.”

Gribbin did signal that the administration is willing to work with lawmakers, characterizing the infrastructure framework as the "first round" of negotiations on the matter.

Gribbin's defense came hours after Chao advocated for the proposal during a testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Lawmakers tasked with working on infrastructure legislation came away from a bipartisan meeting at the White House earlier this month encouraged, but any efforts will be put up against a difficult timeline in a midterm election year.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), who is working on a bill with ranking member Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioIncoming committee chairman 'hopeful' House will pass infrastructure bill early next year Dem rep says term limits should be considered for House leadership The Hill's Morning Report — Takeaways from the battle royal in the Oval Office MORE (D-Ore.), told the same conference on Wednesday that an infrastructure bill could pass during a lame-duck session of Congress if lawmakers cannot move a bill across the finish line before the November elections.