Monday, June 5, 2017

President Trump To Launch Push For Infrastructure Investment

Focus on infrastructure could help Mr. Trump find common ground with members of Congress.


By Ted Mann and Michael C. Bender
The Wall Street Journal
June 5, 2017

President Donald Trump will launch a new campaign this week aimed at fulfilling his pledge for $1 trillion of infrastructure investment, hoping to capitalize on lawmakers’ support for rebuilding the nation’s transportation systems at a time when his tax and health legislation are in flux.

Mr. Trump will begin with a White House event Monday announcing a push to privatize air-traffic control across the U.S., in what backers say could be a catalyst for improving speed and fuel efficiency across the aviation industry.

From there, the president will campaign for reviving infrastructure along the Ohio River, then meet with mayors and governors in the White House, followed by a speech at the Transportation Department on Friday.

The White House still hasn’t said how it plans to pay for the federal government’s share of the projects, and officials said a more detailed proposal will come at an unspecified later date. But Mr. Trump’s top economic adviser said the administration aims to encourage states and cities to bear much of the burden.

“We want to talk to them and make sure we’re partnering with them to make sure that they can use their tax dollars as efficiently,” White House National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn told reporters Friday. “We can be a good partner with them in helping them to enhance their infrastructure projects.”

Shifting the discussion to infrastructure could mean the best chance for Mr. Trump to find common ground with members of Congress who object to other elements of his agenda, given the broad agreement that the nation’s roads, bridges, rails and water facilities are in disrepair. It would, however, mean finding a way to live up to campaign pledges that many believe are irreconcilable—investing $1 trillion in infrastructure, but doing so with funds raised almost entirely from the private sector.

The infrastructure push is “encouraging,” said Scott Rechler, a real-estate developer and former official at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who consulted with Mr. Trump’s transition team. “They should have started with this, since it’s one area with a level of bipartisan support.”

But Mr. Rechler, a Democrat whose own real-estate company has financed infrastructure like sewers and utilities in public-private partnerships with local government, said the administration’s plans should recognize that private financing won’t be able to replace federal funding in fixing some critical areas—from railroads to crumbling damswhere investors can’t turn a profit.

“It’s not free,” Mr. Rechler said. “At some point or another someone’s going to have to pay for this.”

In remarks to reporters last week, presidential advisers made clear they will be attempting to pair the president’s pledge to renew critical infrastructure with a shift of responsibility for some of the costs from federally funded grant programs to state and municipal taxpayers.

Some city and state officials say that they are already strapped for funds and worry about having to shoulder large additional costs.

“Voters in L.A. have done their part by passing the boldest and largest transportation measure in our nation’s history,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said. “And I expect Congress to act across party lines, and finalize a budget that provides direct funding for infrastructure projects that will improve quality of life for millions of people.”

The administration has called for spending $200 billion on infrastructure projects over 10 years, saying that infusion of federal money could help trigger roughly $1 trillion worth of total funding thanks to a surge in private investment.

Still, after nearly six months in office, the administration hasn’t said how it will pay for the federal government’s share of that investment, and hasn’t put forward legislation that would show exactly how it plans to spur private investment.

Senior administration officials didn’t say if Mr. Trump would put forward his own proposals for raising the funds for an infrastructure package or defer to Congress, saying that is “something we are currently debating inside the White House.”

An infrastructure proposal fleshed out with actual details will be ready “when the president tells us it should be ready,” a senior administration official said.

The administration has been most specific about its desire to cut regulation and permitting that can delay the start of new infrastructure projects. Mr. Trump has seized on a flow chart provided by Mr. Cohn’s deputy, DJ Gribbin, that shows how the permitting process for a new highway can involve up to 16 federal agencies.

Mr. Cohn said Friday that the administration would like to shrink the permitting schedule for such projects from as much as 10 years to “two or less.”

“The cost of infrastructure goes up dramatically as time goes on in the approval process, capital is tied up, it has people waiting for permits, and the amount of paperwork and the amount of fees that you just encumbered while you’re going through the approval process is enormous,” Mr. Cohn said.

Those comments would find agreement among some Democrats as well, and echo some of the Obama administration’s efforts to “fast-track” selected major capital projects by speeding environmental approvals.


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