- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 11, 2018

President Trump will roll out Monday a long-awaited $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that sticks to his “on time and under budget” mantra by seeking to speed up and cut costs of construction projects via a major overhaul of the federal permit process.

Mr. Trump wants to repair not just roads and airports but also a federal system for building and maintaining infrastructure that is “fundamentally broken,” said senior White House advisers who gave reporters a preview of the plan.

“It’s broken in two different ways: We are under-investing in our infrastructure, and we have a permitting process that takes so long that even when funds are adequate, it can take a decade to build critical infrastructure,” said one official.

They said the plan would budget $200 billion over 10 years to leverage the bigger investment by state and local governments, with the $200 billion of new spending offset with unspecified cuts elsewhere in the president’s 2019 budget, which also is being released Monday.

The plan outlined by the White House sets four goals:

⦁ Stimulate $1.5 trillion of new investment in infrastructure.

⦁ Shorten the permitting process to two years.

⦁ Target invest in rural infrastructure such as broadband internet service with $50 billion in block grants to states.

⦁ Improve workforce training, including expanding Pell Grant eligibility to students pursuing certification or credentials for in-demand fields.

The White House hopes the popularity of rebuilding America’s highways, bridges, railroads and seaports will be enough to attract rare bipartisan support in Congress.

A team of White House officials have spent a year on Capitol Hill developing the plan, but stiff resistance is still expected, especially from Democrats who recoil from changes to environmental regulations and demand at least $1 trillion in direct federal spending on infrastructure.

The president plans to travel the country to drum up popular support of his plan. He will highlight desperately needed infrastructure across the country and visit places where state and local governments have taken innovative steps to finance construction, showing the types of projects he wants to enable, officials said.

Mr. Trump made the same pitch in the State of the Union address: “I am asking both parties to come together to give us the safe, fast, reliable, and modern infrastructure our economy needs and our people deserve. Together, we can reclaim our building heritage. We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways, and waterways across our land. And we will do it with American heart, American hands, and American grit.”

Only a handful of Democrats in the House chamber stood to applaud.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank, warned the plan would be a “scam” paid for by slashing social programs, shifting billions of dollars in costs to states and cities, and sidestepping public health and environmental protections.

Still, White House officials insist they are encouraged that there is broad agreement about the goal of infrastructure improvement and welcomes the debate on the method to accomplish it.

“This in no way, shape, or form should be considering a take-it-or-leave-it proposal,” said a White House official. “This is the start of a negotiation — bicameral bipartisan negotiation — to find the best solution for infrastructure in the U.S.”

The White House got a more enthusiastic response than expected from state governments, prompting Mr. Trump to up the goal from the original $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion from the same $200 billion federal payout.

The $200 billion would be divvied out in five categories:

⦁ An incentive program would use $100 billion for matching state and local government spending on projects, dealing filling in the final gaps in funding.

⦁ Rural infrastructure grants get $50 billion.

⦁ A $20 billion expansion in loan program and private activity bonds to finance projects.

⦁ Another $20 billion for what the White House called “transformative programs” for visionary projects that prepare the U.S. for the future.

⦁ And $10 billion for a capital financing to fund the federal governments’ office building projects.

An official described transformative projects as ones that “lift the American spirit” as opposed to just rebuilding what’s already there.

Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, cheered the plan.

“President Trump is providing the leadership we have desperately needed to reclaim our rightful place as global leader on true 21st century infrastructure,” he said. “There is no excuse for inaction, and manufacturers are committed to ensuring that America seizes this opportunity.”

The hallmark of the plan is the effort to streamline the Byzantine federal approval process, but officials stressed that they were not rolling back public health and environmental protections.

“We want to shorten the process but, at the same time, preserve all of the environmental protections that current law has,” said an official.

Under the plan, the government would adopt a “One Agency, One Decision” structure, eliminating multi-agency reviews and approvals that slow the process.

It would remove the current series of duplicative requirements that are in law, where often a decision by one federal agency is second-guessed by another, creating turf wars and inevitable delays.

Mr. Trump’s idea is that for every decision that needs to be made, find the agency that has the best expertise and give them the authority to make that decision. Other agencies would then partner with the lead agency to execute the decision.

• S.A. Miller can be reached at smiller@washingtontimes.com.

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