Trump’s in­fra­struc­ture push is miss­ing blue­print

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Noah Bier­man

WASH­ING­TON — Pres­i­dent Trump em­ployed all the trap­pings tra­di­tion­ally re­served for sign­ing ma­jor bills into law as he kicked off “in­fra­struc­ture week” on Mon­day: the stately East Room full of dig­ni­taries, a four-piece mil­i­tary band to ser­e­nade, cel­e­bra­tory hand­shakes and sou­venir pres­i­den­tial pens for law­mak­ers, prom­ises of “a great new era” and a “rev­o­lu­tion” in tech­nol­ogy.

Yet the doc­u­ments Trump signed amid all the pomp were not new laws or even an ex­ec­u­tive or­der. They were rou­tine let­ters to Congress, re­lay­ing sup­port for a min­i­mally de­tailed plan in Trump’s bud­get to trans­fer con­trol of the na­tion’s air traf­fic con­trol sys­tem to a pri­vate non­profit group.

This was the cer­e­mo­nial open­ing to Trump’s full week of in­fra­struc­ture pro­mo­tion, which is sched­uled to in­clude a speech along the Ohio River on Wed­nes­day and a White House meet­ing with may­ors and gover­nors on Thurs­day.

But it was also the lat­est ex­am­ple of a pat­tern of the ad­min­is­tra­tion claim­ing to

have sent Congress fully con­structed poli­cies when it has pro­vided only fa­cades — cre­at­ing the ap­pear­ance of sub­stan­tive heft and leg­isla­tive ac­tion even in cases where there is next to none.

It will be year’s end, White House aides said, be­fore Trump sends Congress even the gen­eral prin­ci­ples for achiev­ing one of his big­gest cam­paign prom­ises: a $1tril­lion in­vest­ment over 10 years to re­build the na­tion’s roads, bridges and other in­fra­struc­ture.

Aides of­fered no time­line for sub­mit­ting a bill to Congress to en­act that prom­ise, and they now say that one­fifth of the $1 tril­lion would come from the gov­ern­ment and the rest — $800 bil­lion — from pri­vate in­vestors.

Trump has of­ten touted his plan for a na­tional re­build­ing ef­fort, the prospect of which has thrilled Wall Street. But what is known of his in­fra­struc­ture agenda sug­gests it en­vi­sions less fed­eral in­vest­ment, not more. His bud­get would cut nearly 13% from trans­porta­tion pro­grams for the com­ing year, while elim­i­nat­ing bil­lions of dol­lars more from grants cur­rently tar­geted to build up in­fra­struc­ture.

Trump’s crit­ics have sug­gested that the pres­i­dent has made a habit of over­selling ma­jor ini­tia­tives.

Trump touted the un­veil­ing of his tax over­haul in April but re­leased only a one-page set of bul­leted talk­ing points, far short of the dev­il­ish de­tails needed to re­write thou­sands of pages of the cor­po­rate and in­di­vid­ual tax codes. Just last week, he tweeted that his tax bill is pro­ceed­ing “ahead of schedule,” though he has sub­mit­ted no bill to Congress and key de­tails re­main un­re­solved among Repub­li­can lead­ers.

Trump held a Rose Gar­den cer­e­mony in May to cel­e­brate House pas­sage of a bill to re­peal Oba­macare — one that wouldn’t in­sure ev­ery­one, as he’d promised, but would end cov­er­age for many mil­lions — even as Repub­li­cans in the Se­nate served no­tice that the bill was un­ac­cept­able.

His promised “beau­ti­ful wall” on the south­ern bor­der is not yet on a draw­ing board. Like­wise, many of the ex­ec­u­tive orders Trump has signed failed to live up to the pres­i­dent’s rhetoric. Among them: us­ing Amer­i­can steel to build oil pipe­lines and pro­tect­ing the re­li­gious free­dom of church pas­tors who want to en­gage in po­lit­i­cal speech.

Trump chose to lead off in­fra­struc­ture week with the air traf­fic con­trol an­nounce­ment be­cause a plan had al­ready been writ­ten in Congress, by Rep. Bill Shus­ter (R-Pa.), and de­bated for sev­eral years — “low-hang­ing fruit from a pol­icy per­spec­tive,” ac­cord­ing to DJ Grib­bin, spe­cial as­sis­tant to the pres­i­dent for in­fra­struc­ture.

The plan sup­ported by Trump would cre­ate a non­profit air traf­fic con­trol en­tity that would take re­spon­si­bil­i­ties from the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which would still have safety over­sight, and re­place taxes on air travel with user fees.

Trump said gov­ern­ment bu­reau­cracy has im­peded progress and in­creased costs, and he promised that a pri­vate sys­tem with air­lines’ and unions’ sup­port would mod­ern­ize the an­ti­quated air traf­fic sys­tem, which still re­lies on ground radar “at a time when ev­ery pas­sen­ger has GPS tech­nol­ogy in their pock­ets.”

“It’s time to join the fu­ture,” the pres­i­dent said to ap­plause from the in­vited guests.

“If we adopt these changes, Amer­i­cans can look for­ward to cheaper, faster and safer travel,” he said. He de­scribed “a fu­ture where 20% of a ticket price doesn’t go to the gov­ern­ment, and where you don’t have to sit on a tar­mac or cir­cle for hours and hours over an air­port — which is very dan­ger­ous also — be­fore you land.”

Trump said Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials “didn’t know what they were do­ing” when they spent bil­lions of dol­lars to up­grade the sys­tem.

Sarah Feinberg, who was a chief of staff at the Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment in the Obama years, called Trump’s com­ment “mis­lead­ing” at best and said he was de­scrib­ing a long-term ini­tia­tive that be­gan in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The idea to pri­va­tize air traf­fic con­trol, em­braced in many other coun­tries, has been de­bated since at least the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion. But it faces an uncertain fu­ture in Congress, in part be­cause of bi­par­ti­san con­cerns over the pro­posed en­tity’s fi­nan­cial sta­bil­ity dur­ing down­turns and its abil­ity to cover the high costs of mod­ern­iza­tion, as well as wor­ries from ru­ral ar­eas that they would face higher fees.

A bill to trans­fer the sys­tem died in the Se­nate last year.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion prom­ises that its fuller, still-to-come in­fra­struc­ture plan will cre­ate $1 tril­lion in in­vest­ment, in part by re­mov­ing reg­u­la­tions that de­lay pri­vate sec­tor in­vest­ment and by us­ing the smaller $200-bil­lion gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment to stim­u­late more pri­vate spend­ing.

But with­out a plan, those claims have been dif­fi­cult to an­a­lyze, as have other ques­tions about jobs prom­ises, pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships and the ef­fect on the econ­omy and the fed­eral deficit.

For ex­am­ple, se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, dur­ing a week­end brief­ing with re­porters, said they were still de­bat­ing one of the most fun­da­men­tal de­tails in­ter­nally: whether they would try to iden­tify ways to pay for the in­fra­struc­ture plan them­selves or pass that chore on to Congress. Skep­tics ques­tion whether in­vestors would see any fi­nan­cial ben­e­fit in many needed pub­lic works projects, like sewer fa­cil­i­ties and levees.

“It’s a joke,” said Ed Rendell, former Demo­cratic gov­er­nor of Penn­syl­va­nia who is the co-chair of a bi­par­ti­san group called Build­ing Amer­ica’s Fu­ture that ad­vo­cates for in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing. “And it’s some­what of a cruel joke to the peo­ple who were look­ing for­ward to hav­ing jobs, cre­ated through in­vest­ment.”

Democrats have pounced on that lack of speci­ficity, as well as early sug­ges­tions that the pri­vate sec­tor could get di­rect ben­e­fits from the plan.

“The pres­i­dent has not only failed to of­fer any cred­i­ble plan to re­build and re­pair our na­tion’s in­fra­struc­ture,” House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Fran­cisco) said in a state­ment, “he has in­stead tried to slash trans­porta­tion fund­ing through his cruel and short-sighted bud­get.”

In­fra­struc­ture may be the area where Trump had his best chance to work with Democrats, who have long ad­vo­cated for pub­lic works projects that are pop­u­lar among la­bor unions and viewed as ef­fec­tive ways to stim­u­late the econ­omy. But there is lit­tle ev­i­dence that he has reached out to them.

Seth Wenig As­so­ci­ated Press

AIR TRAF­FIC CON­TROLLERS at New York’s Kennedy air­port. Pres­i­dent Trump kicked off “in­fra­struc­ture week” with a plan to pri­va­tize air traf­fic con­trol — one that orig­i­nally came from a con­gress­man.

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