White House launches vision on spending, projects

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The White House today began a weeklong effort to promote plans to boost infrastructure spending by private companies, states and cities.

The administration will publicize its vision in events and announcements. It kicked off with a long-discussed proposal to privatize air traffic control, which aides called “low-hanging fruit.”

“This new entity will not need taxpayer money, which is very shocking,” President Trump said during remarks unveiling the proposal in the White House East Room.

He was joined by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster, and previous Transportation secretaries and Federal Aviation Administration heads.

In a briefing with reporters this morning about the administration’s broader infrastructure plan, aides pointed to a loose set of principles highlighting public-private partnerships and regulatory reform rather than concrete, detailed legislation.

They say an additional $200 billion in direct federal spending over the next 10 years would trigger $1 trillion in overall spending, despite proposed cuts to grants for highways and transit.

Many of the administration’s ideas on infrastructure, like relaxing restrictions on tolling, have been trickling out over the past few months, but advisers called this week a more “formal” launch of their vision. Infrastructure legislation could come to Congress this fall.

National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said Friday the federal government was seeking to be a “partner to state and local governments to help them overcome the political and bureaucratic obstacles.”

That marks a departure from previous large-scale infrastructure pushes, like the expansion of the interstate highway system or public works projects during the Great Depression, in which the federal government provided most of the funding.

‘Massive’ permitting reform

Cohn and other advisers, including the special assistant to the president for infrastructure, DJ Gribbin, and the Office of American Innovation’s assistant to the president, Reed Cordish, lamented what they call a lengthy approval process for projects in background calls with reporters.

“Our length of time has nothing to do with environmental and has everything to do with a broken system,” Cordish said today, adding that the president’s plan will include “massive” permitting reform. The goal is to get projects approved in two years or less, instead of eight, he said.

The administration’s vision would place much of the responsibility for building out new infrastructure on state and local officials as opposed to the federal government.

On Wednesday, the president will travel to Cincinnati to speak about rural infrastructure and inland waterways. The White House will host a bipartisan group of governors and mayors Thursday. And the president is scheduled Friday to visit the Transportation Department to highlight regulatory reform.

Separately, Chao will appear Wednesday before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on the FAA.

Democrats, who have pushed their own plans, including $1 trillion of direct federal spending, were already pushing back against the administration’s vision.

“The entire focus of the President’s infrastructure ‘proposal’ is on privatization, which sounds like a nice word but when you scratch beneath the surface it means much less construction and far fewer jobs, particularly in rural areas,” said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a statement.

Critics also say this week’s events appear more like a public relations push rather than the administration presenting more concrete proposals for Congress to consider.