President Trump will seek to put a spotlight on his vows to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system and spur $1 trillion in new investment in roads, waterways and other infrastructure with a week-long series of events starting Monday in the Rose Garden.
The events — billed as “infrastructure week” — are part of a stepped-up effort since the president’s return a week ago from his first foreign trip to show that the White House remains focused on its agenda, despite cascading headlines about his administration’s ties to Russia.
Trump’s plans next week also include a trip to the Ohio River, where it separates Ohio and Kentucky, to talk about the importance of waterways and to lay out his vision of infrastructure investments more broadly, aides say. And before the weekend, he will also welcome a bipartisan group of mayors and governors to Washington to discuss the topic and venture to the Transportation Department to talk about roads and railways.
“In many of these areas, we’re falling behind, and the falling behind is affecting economic growth in the United States,” said Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, who is helping lead a task force developing Trump’s infrastructure plan. “The president wants to fix the problem.”
The flurry of planned activity comes as two other marquee Trump promises — overhauling the Affordable Care Act and cutting taxes — remain stalled in Congress, largely because of differences among fellow Republicans and the intricacies of the plans.
It’s unclear whether Trump’s promised infrastructure package, for which the administration hopes to attract bipartisan support, will fare any better when formally introduced in coming months.
Democrats sharply questioned Trump’s commitment to the issue following the administration’s release last month of a budget proposal that, by one accounting, included more cuts to existing infrastructure programs over the next decade than it contemplated in new federal spending.
Citing the analysis by his office, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared on the Senate floor that “President Trump’s campaign promises on infrastructure are crumbling faster than our roads and bridges.”
Trump has proposed spending $200 billion over the 10-year period with the aim of attracting a total of at least $1 trillion in new investments with the help of the private sector and state and local governments. Democrats prefer a much larger infusion of federal money.
In a briefing for reporters, Trump administration officials acknowledged the timing of their infrastructure package remains up in the air but said they hope to move much more quickly on one piece of it: an effort to spin off control of day-to-day air traffic control functions from the federal government.
Trump has invited executives from the major airlines to join him in the Rose Garden on Monday as he touts a plan that aides argue would allow more rapid modernization of the air traffic control system if run by a nonprofit corporation rather than by the Federal Aviation Administration.
For months now, Cohn has been making presentations to interested parties, arguing the benefits of moving to a new GPS-based system for flights rather than the current land-based radar system. Among other things, he says, GPS will help pilots fly more direct routes, cutting down both flight times and fuel usage.
Cohn and other privatization advocates argue that government procurement rules and the uncertainties of the annual congressional budget process have undercut the FAA’s ability to move in that direction.
Aides say Trump’s proposal, which will be sent to Congress separately, is largely based on legislation authored last year by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Penn.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee. The White House previously called his bill “an excellent starting point” for separating more than 30,000 FAA workers from the government.
Instead of current taxes on fuel and airline tickets, Shuster’s plan would rely on fees paid by aircraft operators. The FAA would retain its role as an oversight agency, much like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which issues auto regulations and recalls faulty vehicles.
Although Shuster’s bill emerged from his committee last year, it never got a vote on the House floor. In the Senate, reaction was lukewarm among some key Republicans.
Some opponents cited concerns about the transition period to a new system, as well as legal difficulties of transferring the FAA’s assets to a nonprofit corporation. Others questioned whether privatization would save money and argued that it could drive up airline ticket costs and pose national security risks.
A recent White House budget document points out that dozens of other nations have moved in a similar direction.
The document highlights Canada as an example of a country that successfully privatized its air management responsibilities two decades ago, a move that has resulted in new infrastructure investments and “cutting-edge air traffic technology.”
If a new U.S. corporation were to develop its own technologies, it could potentially sell its services to other countries, the document says.
The White House’s broader vision for infrastructure relies heavily on the private sector. Administration officials, for example, have floated the idea of selling roads and airports to private investors, which would in turn could free up funds for new projects.
Trump’s initiative is also expected to try to foster more public-private partnerships, including toll roads that would allow private investors to recoup their upfront spending.
In the briefing for reporters, Cohn also stressed the White House’s desire to streamline the government permitting process for new highways and other infrastructure, a prospect that has concerned environmental advocates, among others.
For highways, permitting now takes about 10 years, Cohn said, adding that the White House would like to see that reduced to two years or less.
“Time is money,” Cohn said. “The cost of infrastructure goes up dramatically as time goes on in the approval process.”
Cohn said Trump’s speech Wednesday will touch on his desire for some “targeted transformative projects” as well as a desire to partner with state and local governments and help them overcome “the political and bureaucratic obstacles” to infrastructure projects.
“It doesn’t matter who you are, whether you’re a farmer in the Midwest or a mother driving your kids to and from school, or work, or a college kid flying back and forth to school, you’re affected by infrastructure,” Cohn said.