Last week during the 2017 National Conference of State Legislatures Legislative Summit I attended the session “Critical Status: How Financing Can Help Address America’s Infrastructure Crisis,” which largely focused on the attractiveness of public-private partnerships (P3), the permitting process and the roles the Federal and State levels of government should play in projects. Taking part in the panel session was Alex Herrgott, associate director of infrastructure at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Given the emphasis President Trump placed on infrastructure while on the campaign trail, it goes without saying that Herrgott’s remarks were of particular interest.

Here are a few of my biggest takeaways from the session, which shed light on how the Trump administration plans to approach infrastructure:

  • It hasn’t come up much in 2017, but infrastructure is huge for the Trump administration
    • According to Herrgott, the White House sees infrastructure as one of its three top issues, along with health care and tax reform. Scaling back the permitting process, including reducing the volume of permits and the duplicity of certain permits, was indicated as a priority of the administration and Herrgott went so far as to say that streamlining permits might be the administration’s most important initiative.
  • The Trump administration wants to localize infrastructure projects
    • There is a strong desire for projects to be handled at the state and local level where the assets (e.g., bridges, roads) are owned. Putting more control in state and local governments would allow for different financing models to be deployed based on what makes sense for a given area and project type. The administration’s desired role would be to provide some measure funding and support on permitting.
  • Like other aspects of government, the Trump administration wants infrastructure run like a business
    • Herrgott acknowledged that the $70 billion available for federal infrastructure investment falls well below the amount needed to tackle deferred maintenance and championed a 50-year mindset in planning, a big step up from the typical 10-year outlook. He advocated running infrastructure management like a business, with strategies to reduce cost and improve the life of assets.
  • P3 may be a dirty word, but its benefits are valuable
    • When asked about misconceptions of P3, Herrgott acknowledged that it has become a dirty word and that “alternative project delivery” is probably a more accurate description of what’s being put forward. He praised the cost savings that can be achieved through P3 as well as the increased level of accountability and the ability for the public sector to expect added value in projects, like innovation or longer service life.

As we have seen with other areas of policy, the Trump administration has not shied away from shaking things up to see what infrastructure improvements can come from moving away from the status quo. Herrgott made it clear that this is a key initiative for the administration and it should get a lot more play in policy conversations in the near future as they search for a key legislative victory. The question to come is will their vision for infrastructure management receive the bipartisan support necessary to turn words into action.