Trump’s Big Infrastructure Swing Comes Up Short

A promise for faster permitting seems to repeat or muddy existing policies.

President Trump arrives to speak about infrastructure at the Department of Transportation on Friday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
June 9, 2017, 5:26 p.m.

The Trump administration’s splashy “Infrastructure Week” closed with a confusing Friday announcement and without a firm plan to deliver the promised trillion dollars in spending or a photogenic ribbon cutting.

Instead, President Trump and top Cabinet officials focused on speeding up the federal permitting process, but left open key questions about what they’d be doing differently and how to deliver projects faster without key staff in place.

Speaking at the Transportation Department on Friday, Trump lamented the “excruciating wait time for permitting” and assured stakeholders that the White House was “committed to ending these terrible delays once and for all.”

Among his promises was “a new council to help project managers navigate the bureaucratic maze” and “ a new online dashboard allowing everyone to easily track major projects through every stage of the approval process.”

Such a dashboard already exists, created under the Obama administration. And Congress in 2015 created the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, which is composed of deputy-level agency officials from across the Cabinet to improve interagency coordination.

The White House said that, despite the assertion that there would be a new council, Trump was referring to FPISC. A senior administration official, briefing reporters anonymously, said the existing council “wasn’t staffed, wasn’t focused,” and would be renewed as a “more robust” entity with a bigger staff.

The council, the official said, would have a kickoff meeting next week, although Trump has not yet nominated an executive director to run it.

Two senators who helped create the council told Trump that it was “perplexing that the Administration has not taken full advantage of the powerful tools Congress gave it … to accomplish those goals.” In a letter to the White House, Sens. Rob Portman and Claire McCaskill said Trump should appoint a permanent executive director for FPISC and should clarify a January executive order that they said seemed to duplicate or conflict with previously passed streamlining measures.

“We have heard from numerous stakeholders that the executive order is confusing and makes the permitting process even more complex—the exact opposite result of what seems to have been intended,” the two wrote.

Trump’s executive order gave the chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality the authority to designate a project as high-priority, allowing it to move faster. Trump has not yet nominated a CEQ chair, and so that power has gone unused so far in the administration.

The White House said that, going forward, FPISC would take the lead on project approval, while CEQ would be more focused on policy—seemingly a shift from the January executive order. CEQ will be tasked with studying the permitting procedure and clarifying how agencies should be acting.

Among the other changes would be a new online dashboard to replace the Obama administration’s website. An outside contractor is being procured to redesign the site, which the White House said would offer more public information on project timelines and would more directly show how each agency is interacting with the process. Trump also promised “tough new penalties” for agencies that miss faster deadlines, although the administration official said discussions about what that would entail were still ongoing.

Democrats have panned “Infrastructure Week” as a half-hearted distraction devoid of definitive plans beyond a proposal to reform the air-traffic-control system. Critics have said the permitting push is all talk, especially since upwards of 90 percent of projects are cleared through a categorical exclusion process that bypasses environmental reviews.

It’s not a grand promise that will grab headlines (although Trump did try to spice it up by showily dropping binders handed to him by a Maryland project developer to demonstrate the extent of reviews that are necessary). But it does mark a potential deliverable that can happen without Congress, where smooth delivery of an infrastructure spending plan is no sure thing.

Nick Goldstein, vice pres­id­ent of reg­u­lat­ory af­fairs for the Amer­ic­an Road and Trans­port­a­tion Build­ers As­so­ci­ation, said his group’s members were still waiting to see specifics of the new permitting plans to ensure there was not duplication, but he was encouraged to see it get attention. Still, Goldstein said, “We also need to remember to fix the Highway Trust Fund so we can get started on those new highway, bridge, and transit projects that go through the review.”

Critics, however, have said that Trump’s plans are just a backdoor attack on the National Environmental Policy Act, designed to ensure that infrastructure projects don’t harm the environment. Both Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have joined Trump at infrastructure events this week to talk about their own agencies’ roles in slowing down federal projects.

Environmentalists have vowed to protect the NEPA process, especially the public-input step that allows community groups and activists the chance to raise concerns that the government may not recognize.

“Any major infrastructure project must include robust public participation—from start to finish. Trump’s approach and mind-set fails that test,” said Natural Resources Defense Council President Rhea Suh in a statement. “As the impacts of climate change and extreme weather increasingly threaten our roads, bridges, and dams, it’s more important than ever to listen to the people and communities that will be affected to ensure public dollars are spent on the public good.”

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