WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats had hoped the one big policy area they could find common ground with President Donald Trump on was infrastructure, but they don't like what they're hearing from administration officials about the transportation portion of the plan that's still in the works.
Trump has promised to generate $1 trillion in infrastructure spending over 10 years. With two of his other top campaign pledges in trouble — an effort to repeal and replace the Obama administration health care law has failed so far, and without savings to the government from health care changes there may not be enough money to pay for lowering tax rates — infrastructure appeared to be an area ripe for bipartisan compromise.
But some Democrats say they worry that Trump's plan will focus on trying to entice more private investment in transportation projects and reduce regulations that require environmental reviews and community consultation on projects rather than providing more government money to repair, replace and expand the nation's transportation network.
Reps. Peter DeFazio of Oregon and Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia, two top Democrats on the House transportation committee, sent a letter Wednesday to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao objecting to comments she made last week about the failure to fix the nation's crumbling transportation system.
"The problem is not money. It's the delays caused by government permitting processes that hold up projects for years, even decades, making them risky investments," Chao said. She reiterated the statement Wednesday in a speech to the American Association of Port Authorities.
Congress has already directed the Transportation Department in bills passed in 2012 and 2015 to take dozens of steps to "streamline" regulations holding up projects. A recent report by the department's inspector general found that work on a majority of the 42 actions required under the 2012 law had been completed, but implementation has been delayed so that the actions can be revised to take into account conflicting or additional requirements of the 2015 law.
"Piling additional streamlining measures on top of each other before they can be implemented — and before we can assess their effectiveness — is not going to solve our infrastructure problems," the lawmakers wrote Chao. "We cannot streamline our way out of a funding shortfall."
A recent report by the Treasury Department identified 40 significant transportation and water projects whose completion has been slowed or is in jeopardy. The report found that "a lack of public funding is by far the most common factor hindering completion of transportation and water infrastructure projects."
Chao, on the other hand, cited a 2015 report by the nonpartisan group Common Good that estimates that delaying road and bridge projects by six years to deal with regulations results in an estimated $427 billion in additional project costs, traffic congestion delays and impact from global warming emissions. The report advocates reducing the permitting process, which can sometimes take up to 10 years, down to two years.
DeFazio also complained at a transportation committee hearing that only a very limited number of transportation projects that have natural revenue streams like tolls are attractive to investors. Most of those projects cost at least $1 billion, and investors generally put up only about 10 to 20 percent of the money, he said. The rest comes from state and local bonds that have to be repaid, or federal aid.
Trump's plan will include ways to boost the role of private investors, Chao said, adding that "investors say there is ample capital available" waiting for projects.
DeFazio recommended increasing federal gasoline and diesel taxes by one penny per gallon and after that automatically increasing the tax with inflation to help pay for transportation. Federal fuel taxes haven't been increased since 1993, although 17 states have increased their fuel taxes in recent years, he said.
Chao's staff notified reporters that she wouldn't be available for questions after her ports association speech. When Chao left the speech, the association's staff physically blocked reporters from leaving, citing a request from Chao that people remain in the room until she was out of the area, a security protocol normally reserved for heads of state.
But Chao stopped in the hotel lobby to chat with people and pose for photos with on the public sidewalk in front of the hotel. Chao's spokeswoman Marianne McInerney stepped in front of a reporter for The Associated Press, who was trying to take a photo of the group, blocking the shot. Chao then got into her waiting black SUV and left.
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