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Tolling Points

How a Federal Infrastructure Plan Can Fund Tough Political Decisions

By: 
Bill Cramer

Some of the untold stories of the Trump administration’s infrastructure plan got a candid, public airing last month when D.J. Gribbin, the former White House Special Assistant to the President for Infrastructure Policy, participated in a panel discussion at IBTTA’s 2018 annual meeting in Baltimore.

Gribbin brought a tale of urgency, potential, and deep frustration to an appearance that touched on the objectives the administration hoped to achieve with the plan, and the relentless obstacles it encountered.

In the end, “even I was amazed at how incredibly hard it is to have a substantive policy discussion in the nation’s capital in the current policy environment,” Gribbin told participants. His experience was that for every action of any sort, there was an equal and opposite negative reaction.

Funding the Tough Political Decisions

The public coverage and commentary on the infrastructure plan brought it down to its simplest expression: A trillion-dollar effort to mobilize state and local investment, while relying primarily on private funds. Though public-private partnerships were indeed a cornerstone of the strategy, Gribbin said its most interesting element was Washington’s willingness to fund a revenue stream, rather than funding a project.

“We said to states and communities: Pick your #1 project, select what is the most politically palatable way to fund it, and if you have a new revenue source, we’ll reward you for that,” Gribbin said. “That was important, because if a politician decided to toll a facility, which as you know is a very difficult political decision to make, they would receive funds from the federal government for that decision.”

The approach would apply equally to tolls, taxation, or any other practical solution: “We just wanted to make it easier to raise more funds for infrastructure.”

The pushback began immediately, and Gribbin found it disheartening. He heard that the White House was unduly trying to enrich private investors, or offloading a federal responsibility to the states, charges he denies to this day. One of his big takeaways was that most Americans don’t understand how infrastructure is funded, or who owns it and is responsible for its upkeep: The reality is that states already spend $3 on infrastructure for every dollar coming from federal coffers, and the point of the infrastructure plan was add to that existing support.

The Buck Stops Where?

But the biggest challenge was when communities showed up at the White House looking for funding for local infrastructure projects. Gribbin said he would try to make the point that the federal government doesn’t generate wealth—it just distributes it—so a dollar that goes to one community is ultimately taken away from another one. And yet, he said he got no takers when he asked who would be willing to contribute their fair share to support another community’s infrastructure proposal.

“You will be shocked, shocked to know that not one hand went up,” he said. “Why is that important? Because no one will increase a tax or charge a toll if they think someone else will pay for it. They decide to wait or send enough lobbyists to DC to get that free money.”

The country will get past that obstacle, Gribbin added, when the public can have a “really good, robust conversation” about how to pay for infrastructure, then understand that the “home run” is to be able to cover the cost locally.

Mark your calendar! Plan to attend IBTTA’s 2019 Summit on Finance & Policy, May 19-21, 2019 in Philadelphia.