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Ex-NJDOT official on Trump's cabinet list (Update)

Will James Simpson head US DoT?

(UPDATE in paragraph 10 below). With President-elect Trump and his Republican friends in Congress, "America's ship has come in" — or maybe its truck has tapped the loading dock, says Frank Rapoport, the Main Line-based Peckar & Abramson attorney who serves as chief strategy adviser for the Association for the Improvement of American Infrastructure.

AIAI pushes public-private partnerships (P3)  —  privately financed toll roads, college buildings, ports and airports, and other public projects for state and local governments that are reluctant to finance infrastructure through traditional low-cost municipal-bond sales. Rapoport's gang and other pro-construction forces are enthused by the prospect the Trump administration will green-light more rebuilding and tolling projects.

Maybe a local transportation guru will play a major role: Politico has listed James S. Simpson, 59, of Wayne -- a trucking company executive and U.S. adviser to a big Chinese construction company, as well as former head of the Federal Transit Administration under President George W. Bush and an NJDoT secretary under Gov. Christie -- as a top candidate to head the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Rival candidates include lame-duck Rep. John Mica (R., Fla.) and Mark Rosenker, ex-chief at the National Transportation Safety Board. (Rep. Bud Shuster (R., Pa.) doesn't want the job.)

Efforts to contact Simpson on Wednesday were not successful.

Simpson and Trump are friends -- they've spent holidays together, a person who knows them both tells me -- and Simpson backed Trump even when his former boss, Christie, was also seeking the GOP nomination.

The Washington Post has reported that some people closely tied to Christie are being removed from consideration by Trump's revamped transition team.

In 2010, the Inquirer's Paul Nussbaum called Simpson a "fast-talking airplane pilot and former truck driver," a self-described "transportation nut" who hoped to find corporate sponsors to upgrade turnpike rest stops so he wouldn't be embarrassed to take his kids there, find ways to boost New Jersey Transit funding in the face of Christie's pledge not to boost tolls or taxes, and to "fix roads before building new ones." Simpson lived in Princeton while working for the state.

Simpson stepped down in 2014 to return to the private sector. He is senior adviser to the chairman and a member of the board of China Construction America Inc., a Jersey City-based unit of China State Construction Engineering Corp. China Construction America also owns Plaza Construction Co., New York.

UPDATE 11/17: "Plaza Construction has great relations with the building trades unions" in New York, James Mahoney, a New York-based senior official and organizer for the Ironworkers union, told me. He said Richard Wood, who built the firm over three decades, has continued to run the firm for its Chinese owner since China State bought Plaza from Fisher Brothers, in 2014. "I'm sure Trump knows him well," Mahoney added.

Last month Plaza agreed to pay more than $9 million in a deferred fraud prosecution agreement to settle allegations by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn that it had overcharged construction clients. Plaza was the latest of several large New York contractors to settle similar complaints. Besides New York, Plaza has done both union and non-union jobs in Florida.

11/16: Simpson also is head of Victory Worldwide Transportation, a Jamesburg, N.J., corporate- and home-moving company that he owns, the Newark Star-Ledger reported. Simpson started at Victory in the 1970s as a driver, to pay his way through St. John's University. Past Victory jobs include moving the George W. Bush Presidential Library collection.

Simpson as transportation secretary "would give us someone in Washington as they look at ways to rebuild I-95, using private money, not just government money," Rapoport says.

Of course, the investors "will have to get paid back," which likely means more tolls, he adds.

Construction lobbyists are also enthused, Rapoport says, about a proposal that Stephen Moore, a conservative policy analyst who helped hammer out Trump's tax proposals (and who preceded Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) as leader of the pro-business Club for Growth), has presented to Rep. Steve Scalise (R.,  La.), the House majority whip. It would direct a special low-rate tax on repatriated corporate profits to build highways and other infrastructure profits.

Congress wants to encourage U.S. companies to "repatriate" profits from big companies like Google, Pfizer, and General Electric, which have made piles of money overseas but are scared to bring it back to the United States if they face today's nearly 40 percent top tax rate.

President Obama had suggested cutting a deal to encourage companies to invest foreign profits in the U.S., "but he never got around to it," Rapoport notes. "It's a good way of raising private money."

Rapoport is encouraged by another result of the election: Even with the Republican tide, voters approved local tax incentives, including a Los Angeles-area sales tax.

"Voters are saying they will vote for a tax so long as they know where the money's going," he concludes.  "There's a lot of momentum."

Staff writer Jacob Adelman contributed to this article.