WASHINGTON – After a day dominated by James Comey’s testimony and a week of persistent Democratic opposition to his approach to infrastructure, President Donald Trump on Friday appeared before a friendly audience at the U.S. Department of Transportation to try to build some momentum for a signature campaign promise.
Standing in a sunlit atrium, flanked by American flags and convoluted charts illustrating the permitting process, Trump said his administration will drastically speed up project approvals as part of his infrastructure initiative. He met earlier with state transportation officials.
Standing before members of Congress and his administration, federal workers, business leaders and workers in hard hats, the president flipped through a thick white binder he said was from an environmental report for a Maryland highway “costing $24,000 per page” – then dropped it to the floor with a dramatic thud that drew laughs and applause.
“These binders on the stage could be replaced by just a few simple pages,” Trump said, gesturing what he said was a $29 million report. “These binders also make you do unnecessary things that cost millions and millions of dollars and they actually make it worse.”
Critics said the president exaggerates the problem and has used inaccurate figures in describing delays.
Trump said his administration is setting up a “new council” to help project managers make it through the “bureaucratic maze,” and that agencies that consistently cause delays will “face tough new penalties.”
“We will hold bureaucracy accountable,” he said. “I was not elected to continue a failed system. I was elected to change it.”
Infrastructure was supposed to be an opportunity for bipartisanship. But the political environment created by a series of investigations into Trump’s campaign and advisers, and concerns over the administration’s reliance on private funds to pay for many new infrastructure projects, have dramatically complicated the effort.
Taking a page from the president’s own successful branding efforts in last year’s campaign, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., repeatedly warned this week of the coming “Trump tolls from coast to coast” under the president’s private-sector heavy plan.
Standing before a barge carrying coal in Ohio earlier this week, Trump said efforts at “massively streamlining” permitting is already paying off in the energy sector.
The Trump administration has proposed investing $200 billion in direct federal investment as part of an effort to leverage private, state and local funds totaling $1 trillion over 10 years. The administration, however, has yet to reveal the specifics of this plan, which would have to be approved by Congress.
Relying on private investors and “a few financiers whispering into the ear of the president . . . won’t fix our water-sewer systems. It won’t expand rural broadband. It won’t fix our energy grid,” Schumer said. He also pointed to the administration’s plans for far-reaching cuts in infrastructure spending outlined in the president’s proposed budget. “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
Several Republican senators have also voiced skepticism of the administration’s approach to what Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called the “cornerstone” of Trump’s infrastructure initiative: a bid to shift the nation’s air traffic control system out of government hands. Some members representing rural states are concerned their smaller airports will be undercut by the effort.
Still, there is hunger to improve U.S. infrastructure that crosses party and ideological lines.
Orlando Bonilla, a laborer who immigrated from Nicaragua and built grocery stores before becoming a rep with the Laborers’ International Union of North America, came to Trump’s speech Friday along with more than a dozen fellow workers in orange union T-shirts.
“We may not see eye-to-eye on other issues. This is something we can support,” Bonilla said. While he disagrees with Trump’s immigration stance and foreign policy, investing in infrastructure “is something that’s good for the country and good for our members.”
Minutes after the Senate Intelligence committee opened its Comey hearing Thursday, the White House said it would be “slashing regulations” so projects move faster.
“In order to jumpstart investment, the President aims to dramatically reduce permitting time for these infrastructure projects from 10 years to 2 years,” the White House said.
In April, Trump told a White House audience that the permitting process for a federally funded highway takes at least a decade.
“We’re going to try to take that process from a minimum of 10 years down to one year,” Trump said in April. “It won’t be more than a year.”
Critics point to Federal Highway Administration data showing it takes 3.6 years to approve major environmental reviews for the small minority of projects that need them, and that most transportation projects move much faster.
Kevin DeGood, an infrastructure specialist at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, said the president’s time frames were “not even remotely accurate.”
“The government-wide average for completing a full environmental impact statement (EIS) is just 4.6 years. This average includes things like new nuclear reactors,” DeGood said. “What is just as critical to understand is that only a very small percentage of projects have to complete an EIS. Only 4 percent of highways projects require an EIS.”
The White House said that as part of its infrastructure effort “1 millions apprentices” would get to work over two years, though program specifics remained unclear.
The White House said the president would commit “$100 billion for local prioritization of infrastructure needs” and “$15 billion for transformative projects . . . that will change America’s approach to infrastructure.”
Chao said the Department of Transportation issued a public call in the Federal Register Friday “soliciting solutions and suggestions on ways to improve government permitting. So, if you have ideas, we want to hear from you.”