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There were frictions over issues involving funding and environmental permitting in a hearing on Thursday.
WASHINGTON — President Trump’s infrastructure plan got its first public airing in Congress on Thursday, with some of the thornier issues that are likely to guide debate about any forthcoming public works package on display.
These issues are mainly centered on funding and environmental permitting. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and R.D. James, assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, who leads the Army Corps of Engineers, appeared before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on behalf of the administration.
Chao brushed off a question about President Trump’s current position on raising the federal gas tax. In recent weeks, Trump has floated the idea of a 25-cent gas tax increase to help fund infrastructure.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, asked about this. “The president has now said on a number of occasions that he does support an increase in the gas tax to fund this $200 billion plan,” he said. “Does the president mean what he says about increasing the gas tax?”
“You should ask the White House,” Chao shot back.
Later in the day, DJ Gribbin, a special assistant to the president on infrastructure policy, said, as he has previously, that the president has not ruled out the possibility of a gas tax increase. “He’s said supportive things about it,” Gribbin told state transportation officials at an event.
“As an administration we don’t have a position for or against,” he added.
The president’s infrastructure plan calls for $200 billion of federal spending that would mostly go to new grant programs. It aims to stimulate around $1.5 trillion of spending over a decade for roads, water systems and other public works, when factoring in state, local and private funds.
How lawmakers will find or raise the money to pay for new infrastructure spending, or even to shore-up existing programs in future years, like the Highway Trust Fund, is one of the quandaries on Capitol Hill as infrastructure discussions ramp up.
Gribbin has previously pointed to proposed cuts in the president’s fiscal year 2019 budget plan as a way to pay for the infrastructure programs the White House proposed. Democrats have lashed out against the idea of chopping existing funding for transit and rail.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, an Oregon Democrat, questioned whether the White House infrastructure and budget proposals amount to “simply moving chairs around on the deck of our infrastructure Titanic.”
And Sen. Tom Carper, a Delaware lawmaker who is the top Democrat on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said he and other senators met with governors who are “concerned” and are “not anxious to accept the kind of deal” outlined in the Trump proposal.
The largest pool of grants under the White House public works plan involves an “incentives program” that would be allotted $100 billion.
This initiative would be designed to favor states and local governments that can bring greater shares of non-federal dollars to the table for projects. And grants through the program would not be allowed to exceed 20 percent of new project revenue.
Two other grant programs Trump has pitched would direct money toward rural and “transformative” projects.
Trump administration officials have emphasized they are not seeking to dismantle “formula” funding programs, like the Highway Trust Fund, or so-called state revolving funds that support water and wastewater projects. They’ve stressed that under the plan, states and localities would still have access to these programs and that the new grants would come in addition to them.
“We’re not eliminating the Highway Trust Fund,” Gribbin said. “We are not using this just to replace existing programs.”
In addition to grants, a major component of the White House infrastructure push involves reworking and speeding up environmental permitting and approval processes for projects.
The goal is for federal approvals for infrastructure projects to take two years or less.
Committee Chairman John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, zeroed in on what he sees as the promise of speeding up federal permitting and approvals for infrastructure projects.
“The time has come to make a significant investment in our roads, bridges, ports and water systems,” he said. “Part of this can be accomplished by cutting Washington's red tape.”
“As states, counties and towns wait to obtain permits from Washington, the cost for projects rise,” Barrasso added. “We need to speed-up project delivery.”
Chao said there are private pension funds interested in investing in public infrastructure, but that a hurdle they face is the lack of ready projects. “If the permitting process can be speeded up,” she said, “it will actually make more projects available for the private sector.”
Carper, however, said he was disappointed “by the degree to which the administration is focusing on sweeping roll backs to our nation’s bedrock environmental protections.”
“Gutting environmental protection does not always achieve time-savings,” he added. Ensuring permitting agencies have adequate money to complete reviews quickly and fully implementing authorities Congress has already passed were alternatives he offered.
The Trump administration is adamant it is not trying to torpedo environmental protections by revising the permitting process.
Alex Herrgott is associate director for infrastructure with the White House Council on Environmental Quality and has helped spearhead the administration’s permitting overhaul efforts. On Thursday, he challenged conservation advocates to scrutinize the White House proposals and identify anything other than a “process redesign.”
“There has been no erosion of environmental protections in anything this White House has done to speed up project delivery,” he said at the same American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials gathering where Gribbin spoke.
The odds an infrastructure bill will pass this year, and the extent to which it might include the White House proposals are unclear.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, earlier this week suggested that finding time to pass major infrastructure legislation this year could be challenging.
But he told Route Fifty on Thursday that he’d spoken with Carper about these remarks and told him that he didn’t want his comments “to come across as more negative than I intended.” And he said he was not ruling out the possibility of moving ahead with legislation.
“I intend to do everything I can to help advance an infrastructure bill, but I also recognize the challenges of doing it in this environment and with limited time,” he said. “We’re gonna try.”
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.