Molybdenum is a soft, gray element derived by blasting rock in massive mines, such as this one in Colorado. It is used to strengthen steel. Steel goes into big infrastructure projects. (ED ANDRIESKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao issued a public call in June for ways to improve government permitting. The federal notice announcing the crowdsourcing effort said her agency wanted to hear about burdens that "unjustifiably delay or prevent completion of surface, maritime, and aviation transportation infrastructure projects."

Many of the responses from industry groups stray from the immediate realm of roads, bridges and airports, and stretch the definition of "infrastructure" to the breaking point. The aspirational and bipartisan-sounding term has become a branding device for all sorts of corporate priorities and efforts to cut government under President Trump.

The fertilizer industry, noting its support for "initiatives that will accelerate construction of transportation infrastructure projects," wants to kill a federal clearinghouse meant to keep track of truckers who fail drug and alcohol tests. The Fertilizer Institute, whose members haul ammonia and other hazardous chemicals, said officials were "inserting themselves into the time sensitive arena of compliance."

The American Road & Transportation Builders Association, arguing that the regulatory process "has morphed" into areas "largely unrelated to improving our transportation infrastructure," said federal contractors should not be required to provide paid sick leave for workers, because of "increased costs."

The National Mining Association took up the transportation secretary's infrastructure challenge — and made the case for defending molybdenum mines.

The soft, gray element, derived by blasting millions of tons of rock each year in Colorado and elsewhere, is used to strengthen steel. Steel goes into big building projects, the group noted in its 13-page submission. Copper provides benefits as well, by keeping "urban transit, subways, and trains moving," it said.


One of hundreds of infrastructure ideas submitted to the Trump administration: creating an endangered species bank. This Mountain Yellow-Legged lived in a marsh near Ebbetts Pass, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Among the mining association's suggestions: Chao's department should help block a proposed regulation, advanced under President Barack Obama, that would require companies to guarantee they would pay for cleanup if their vast mines ever become hazardous Superfund sites.

One firm argued that the added financial obligations would reach into the billions.

"We cannot repair our infrastructure without key raw materials," the mining group said. "There is a very serious question, however, about where those materials will come from if we fail to pursue proactive policies that promote domestic mining."

Dismantling regulations

A Transportation Department official, speaking under ground rules requiring he not be named, declined to say whether the administration supports any of the requests. "There are a number of submissions that came in that are afield of our specific ask. People took the time to submit them. We're going to take the time to evaluate them," the official said.


The American Road & Transportation Builders Association says its members shouldn’t have to pay sick leave for workers on federal contracts. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Trump's bid to dismantle regulations across the government has remained a constant in a tumultuous term beset by Russia investigations and blowback to his comments about a white-supremacist rally that left one person dead in Charlottesville.

It's an effort the president pursues with an almost gleeful abandon, sometimes characterized by imprecision and hyperbole.

With a bravado born of his own experience in the development industry, the president stood in Trump Tower on Aug. 15 and cited an unnamed highway project he claimed cost hundreds of millions of dollars after being mired in years of government red tape.

Trump said he could have built the project himself for "$4 or $5 million dollars without the permitting process."

After that August news conference — which was ostensibly about infrastructure but took a sharp turn with Trump's contention that "both sides" were to blame for Charlottesville's violence — Chao stayed on message.

She said that officials have "identified improvements to more than two dozen policies and rules that will streamline project delivery and environmental permitting," adding: "We received another 1,044 streamlining suggestions from the public, which we are reviewing."

Transportation Department officials later said that while they had received 198 public submissions in response to their call, many of those included multiple ideas, pushing the tally of suggestions above the 1,000 mark.

Categorizing that outpouring has been time-consuming, the Transportation Department official said. It's still unclear how many on that list are repeats of requests industry groups and others made earlier through different channels, or how they fit in with various reviews of bureaucratic hurdles launched under various Trump executive orders, he said.

Common-sense streamlining

An internal task force has been pouring over policies and regulations, coming up with its own targets to roll back.

The objective is common-sense streamlining that speeds up projects and brings meaningful benefits to communities, the department official said. He cited as an example efforts to change how officials in Washington treat state requests to build certain kinds of highway exits.

Today, adding an access point to an interstate involves drafting an "Interstate Justification Report."

Federal policies encourage full-scale, four-way interchanges, the official said, but those can be too expensive for some communities that want them.

"We are looking at revising that policy to allow the locals more autonomy in making those decisions," the official said.

The result would be getting more ramps through the process faster, while still following safety guidelines, he said.

Radical change

Trump has called for radical change in a quest to improve the nation's "Third World" infrastructure. Regulatory documents show a number of initial actions. The full sweep of his administration's moves has yet to be revealed.

Federal transportation officials are delaying an effort to measure greenhouse gases tied to transportation projects.

They stopped work on a regulation that would have required barriers or other protections in particular work zones, saying cost estimates didn't justify the move.

Transportation officials also repeatedly delayed the effective date of a regulation requiring quiet-running hybrid and electric cars to make noise when traveling at low speeds to help blind pedestrians and others avoid them.

The rule would prevent 2,800 pedestrian injuries and save the equivalent of 35 lives, the department said, but officials called for "additional coordination."

Trump has pushed for tight permitting deadlines and big cuts in the Environmental Protection Agency budget; ordered two regulations cut for every one that's added; claimed that environmental reviews of complex projects can be done in "a few simple pages"; and given private industry new sway in shaping policy.

Numerous interests have seized on the opening, and the administration's call for outside guidance. Many of the 198 commenters, who included private companies, state officials, environmental groups and individuals, stayed focused on the Transportation Department's specific request for examples of "regulatory and administrative burdens that impede transportation infrastructure projects."

Arkema, the French multinational firm whose Crosby, Tex., chemical plant burst into flames following Hurricane Harvey, also makes additives for concrete and asphalt used on road projects.

The company argued that improving the "lengthy, costly and cumbersome" process for testing and certifying construction materials would save money and reduce project delays.

Far-reaching proposals

Some added far-reaching policy proposals to a kind of Christmas list for the Trump era.

An association representing 26,000 construction industry firms and another group of state transportation officials called for relief on endangered species.

They want to expand the use of "advance mitigation," which can mean creating the equivalent of a wetlands bank, but for the bats, bumblebees or salamanders whose presence can sometimes slow projects. A wetlands bank allows a builder to make up for environmental losses on a project site by helping create or restore wetlands elsewhere.

The idea is that the legal requirements to protect creatures would be met through similar actions. Such a "credit-based" system could provide "high-quality, cost-effective mitigation," according to the submission by the Associated General Contractors of America.

Environmental advocates objected, saying that despite some success, wetland banks have had challenges. "Mitigating for species impacts is substantially more complicated and risky than for wetlands, because the impacts to species are more nuanced and errors could result in the extinction of species," according to the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Diverse interests

The Consumer Technology Association, which represents major electronics and tech firms, made its own infrastructure connection. It encouraged federal officials to adopt "a forward-thinking approach to technology issues as you contemplate potential infrastructure development initiatives" — and said it wants the brakes put on voluntary guidelines meant to limit cellphone use in cars.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last year proposed two ideas to reduce distracted-driving crashes: a pairing mode that would lock out video use and texting while a vehicle is moving; and an ­industry-developed "Driver Mode," which would automatically turn on a "simplified interface" that requires less attention.

CTA called it a move "toward rigid, prescriptive technology mandates" and wants the proposed guidelines withdrawn.

The Transportation Department official said it is "not atypical in Washington" for diverse interests to use whatever forum is available to make their case.

"I would be surprised if stakeholder groups didn't look for opportunities to . . . put more things into a bucket that might not ordinarily fit," the official said.

While the department's priorities "really drive around project delivery" — and getting things through faster, cheaper, with fewer steps — everything else is also being categorized and considered.

"Eventually, we will get to them all. And we will assess — are they helpful to us? Is it something we want to do, can do, and ultimately should do? And by what means do you do it?" the official said. "You can only move so quickly."