White House Lays Out Top Infrastructure Priorities In Long-Awaited Plan

Feb 12, 2018
Originally published on February 12, 2018 7:14 pm

President Trump released his long-awaited plan to direct $1.5 trillion toward upgrading U.S. roads, bridges, airports and other public works projects. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly speaks with DJ Gribbin, special assistant to the President for infrastructure policy, about Trump's priorities.

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All right, let's turn now to another issue President Trump has been talking about for a long time. Back in the summer of 2015 when he announced his candidacy, Trump had this to say about the sorry state of American infrastructure as he saw it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're becoming a third-world country because of our infrastructure, our airports, our roads, everything.

KELLY: In his State of the Union address last month, he laid out his vision for what he wants to do about that.


TRUMP: We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways all across our land. And we will do it with American heart and American hands and American grit.

KELLY: The price tag to execute this vision - $1.5 trillion. That's according to President Trump's plan, which was unveiled today and which states that it will be up to state and local governments to fork over almost all of that money, 1.3 trillion. DJ Gribbin is the president's special assistant for infrastructure policy. When I spoke to him today, we talked about that funding strategy. But first I asked, what's the White House's top priority for new infrastructure?

DJ GRIBBIN: One thing that makes the president's program different than what we've done historically is that we are essentially saying to states and communities, listen; you tell us what your priorities are, and then let us respond accordingly. So instead of saying, you know, we're going to focus just on highways; we're going to focus just on ports; we're going to focus just on clean drinking water, we want communities to come to us and give them the flexibility to choose what their priorities are.

KELLY: OK, let's go to the money question. This is a plan that would generate 1.5 trillion, generate being a key word because the federal government is only offering to pony up a fraction of that. What gives you confidence that local governments and the private sector can or will take on funding the rest of that?

GRIBBIN: Well, so I spent - you know, prior to this role, I spent a couple of decades developing projects all across America. And one of the biggest challenges you hit is the uncertainty around federal funding. So I think in conversations that we've had in the last year, it's apparent that cities and states and counties are eager to invest more in infrastructure, and they're sort of very excited that the federal government's going to be a partner with them in that.

KELLY: Let me push back on this idea that cities, counties, states are - I'm sure that they are eager to have new infrastructure projects and investment but that they are eager to pony up all of this money for it. I mean, what ideas do you have for them - these are governments not flush with cash in the first place - to help make up this huge gap between the kind of money you would like to be able to throw at this problem and the kind of money that the federal government is investing?

GRIBBIN: To be honest with you, I think that question sort of has a mistake in premise, which is the federal government has access to funds that state and local governments don't. All of these funds come from taxpayers - right? - whether they're federal funds, state funds or local funds. And if you go out and you ask the public, you know, where do they want to invest? They have much more confidence if they write a check locally that that money will be spent in a way that they can be held accountable for than if they send a check to Washington.

KELLY: So inherent in this plan is more state and local taxes.

GRIBBIN: Well, inherent in this plan is more revenue raised at the state and local level. We leave it up to the states and localities in terms of how they want to raise the revenue.

KELLY: We interviewed former Republican Congressman Ray LaHood this morning on NPR - Ray LaHood, who then went on to be transportation secretary under President Obama. Let me let you respond to this point that he raises.


RAY LAHOOD: The reason we have an interstate system in America that was built over the last 50 years is because our national government made investments. The reason that Europe and Asia have some of the best rail systems is because the national government made a commitment.

KELLY: DJ Gribbin, he's raising the point national leadership is needed on this issue. There are limits to what local and county and state governments can do.

GRIBBIN: Yeah, I mean, I think so. He points to their state system. I mean, the thing is that was absolutely correct in the 1950s and '60s when we were developing the interstate system. It's built now, so we don't really need national leadership to develop the interstate system. On the rail system, the last administration did focus funding on high-speed rail. I'm not sure that's developed in the way that they anticipated.

I think the challenge we have right now is we've moved past the interstate era where we have a clear, defined, national purpose for infrastructure that needs to be accomplished.

KELLY: Let me ask you about the federal portion, which we mentioned is 200 billion in new spending. The administration - that would be you - says you're going to fund this with spending cuts, not with new revenue. Where will those cuts come from?

GRIBBIN: So the budget contains a long list of areas where we're reducing spending. We don't have directly tied, like, this cut goes to that increase in spending. It's a basket of cuts with a basket of increases.

KELLY: But can you name one? I mean, I'm sorry to press you on this, but this is a long-awaited bill, and I'm looking for detail in it. And I - you're going to come up with $200 billion, and you can't tell me one spending cut that might support that.

GRIBBIN: I can tell you dozens of spending cuts that are in the budget. But you need to understand that there's no one individual cut where we're going to save X number of dollars and those X dollars go to the 200 billion.

KELLY: DJ Gribbin - he is the president's special assistant for infrastructure policy. DJ Gribbin, thank you.

GRIBBIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.