- The Washington Times - Monday, June 5, 2017

President Trump began pushing his plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure Monday with a proposal to privatize the air traffic control system, promising it would complete upgrades that have languished for a decade and usher in a new era of safety and efficiency.

Cutting the air traffic control (ATC) loose from the bureaucracy of the Federal Aviation Administration would hasten the upgrade from land-based radar to the NextGen GPS system and make flights “quicker, safer and more affordable,” said the president.

“Today we are proposing to take American air travel into the future — finally, finally. It’s been a long time,” Mr. Trump said in the East Room, where he gathered representatives of the airlines, unions, airports and air travelers to demonstrate the broad support for the plan.

He called the current system, which is considered the safest in the world, “an ancient, broken, antiquated, horrible system that doesn’t work.”

The ATC proposal kicked off Mr. Trump’s weeklong focus on his infrastructure agenda, which includes events highlighting plans to modernize inland waterways and rebuild highways.

Like the rest of the agenda, the privatization of air traffic control is more government reform and deregulation than doling out wads of taxpayer money for projects. As a result, Mr. Trump again will run into stiff resistance from left and the Washington establishment.

Mr. Trump sent Congress a set of principles to guide the drafting of legislation.

Under the plan, air traffic control would be operated by a private, nonprofit and self-financed corporation. The federal government would eliminate all the taxes currently paid to support ATC and allow the new corporation to impose user fees.

The FAA would continue to be responsible for safety and would police the new non-government entity.

Critics warned that privatization could risk safety and national security, and threaten creating a mega company dominated by major airlines with little incentive to support general aviation and rural airports.

Selena Shilad, executive director of the nonpartisan Alliance for Aviation, said privatization would give too much power to commercial airlines “harming consumers and smaller communities who are already at the mercy of a large airline-conglomerate that leaves them with fewer choices, terrible and degrading treatment on flights, and a stream of constant delays and travel headaches that are the airlines own fault.”

Mr. Trump stressed that the plan would safeguard rural and community airports, as well as increase use of airspace across the country through upgrading to NextGen.

If Mr. Trump succeeds, the U.S. would join dozens of countries that have privatized ATC, including state-of-the-art systems in Canada and Australia.

The president views rebuilding infrastructure, which was a prominent campaign promise, as key to his strategy for creating jobs and growing the economy.

The current ATC system was designed generations ago when airports served about 1,000 passengers a day. Nearly 1 million travelers now fly every day and suffer delays at airports, long wait times on the tarmac and the dangerous routine of airplanes circling airports waiting to land, said the president.

“That costs us billions and billions of dollars,” said Mr. Trump. “Our plans will get you where you need to go more quickly, more reliably, more affordably and, yes, for the first time in a long time, on time.”

U.S. air traffic control is the largest, most complex and safest in the world, guiding about 50,000 flights a day. But the system is aging and in need of modernizations, as is the case with much of America’s highways, bridges, waterways and airports that Mr. Trump wants to rebuild.

“At a time when every passenger has GPS technology in their pockets, our air traffic control system still runs on radar and ground-based radio systems that they don’t even make anymore, they can’t even fix anymore,” he said.

He faulted the Obama administration for spending $7 billion in an unsuccessful attempt to upgrade the system.

“Honestly, they didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” he said. “A total waste of money.”

Privatizing ATC has been on conservatives’ wish list for decades but the idea has never gained traction.

This time is different, said a White House official, because the stars have aligned with Republicans in control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.

The official even described the privatization of massive ATC system as “low-hanging fruit.”

The move was applauded by conservatives.

“I am grateful this administration has been eager and willing to reduce the burden of federal regulations and mismanaged bureaucracy on a variety of America’s core industries,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican.

The proposal was rejected by the left and Capitol Hill Democrats, who say it was just the first step in Mr. Trump’s push to privatize the country’s highways, bridges and other infrastructure.

“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 Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

The Economic Policy Institute called Mr. Trump’s infrastructure plan “empty promises not backed by money.”

“The most common theme in the Trump administration’s approach to infrastructure is pure obfuscation about how it will be paid for. If you’re not willing to say forthrightly how you’re going to pay for infrastructure investments, you really cannot be serious about it,” said the left-leaning think tank.

EPI supports the House Progressive Caucus’ proposal for $2 trillion of federal spend on infrastructure.

The president’s budget proposal included $200 billion for an infrastructure program, which is supposed to leverage a total public-private investment of $1 trillion over 10 years.

Central to the plan are proposals to slash regulations and streamline permits, cutting the average approval process for highway projects and other major construction from more than eight years to two years or less.

Rep. Bill Shuster, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, advanced an aviation bill last year that would have privatized ATC. The Pennsylvania Republican’s bill stalled when it hit powerful opposition from business aircraft operators, private pilots and rural and community airports.

Mr. Trump used the Shuster bill as a template and tweaked to garner support from a variety of stakeholders.

Mr. Shuster commended the president for “challenging the old way of thinking in Washington.”

“Innovative thinking — not bureaucracy — is what defines the American spirit. That spirit, displayed in Kitty Hawk, launched aviation and made America the forerunner of this vital industry. Now is the time to unleash the American aviation spirit once again,” he said.

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