After a day dominated by James B. Comey’s testimony and a week of persistent Democratic opposition to President Trump’s approach to infrastructure, Trump on Friday appeared before a friendly audience at the U.S. Department of Transportation to try to build some momentum for a signature campaign promise.
Standing in a sunlit atrium, flanked by American flags and convoluted charts illustrating the permitting process, Trump said his administration will drastically speed up project approvals as part of his infrastructure initiative. He met earlier with state transportation officials.
With members of Congress and his administration, federal workers, business leaders and workers in hard hats seated before him, the president flipped through a thick white binder that he said was from an environmental report for a Maryland highway “costing $24,000 per page” — then dropped it to the floor with a dramatic thud that drew laughs and applause.
“These binders on the stage could be replaced by just a few simple pages,” Trump said, gesturing to what he said was a $29 million report. “These binders also make you do unnecessary things that cost millions and millions of dollars, and they actually make it worse.”
Trump said his administration is setting up a “new council” that will help project managers make it through the “bureaucratic maze,” including by creating a “new online dashboard” to easily track progress. Agencies that consistently cause delays will “face tough new penalties,” Trump said.
“I was not elected to continue a failed system,” he said. “I was elected to change it.”
Infrastructure was seen as an opportunity for bipartisan action. But the criticism of the administration’s reliance on private funds to pay for new infrastructure projects and other issues have complicated the president’s effort and tested goodwill in Congress.
Critics also say the president has used inaccurate figures in describing delays.
Meanwhile, Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-M.), who teamed up on a 2015 law that created a federal permitting improvement council, said in a statement that it was “perplexing that the Administration has not taken full advantage of the powerful tools Congress gave it.”
They also said a Trump administration executive order speeding environmental reviews for key projects “is confusing and makes the permitting process even more complex.”
Details of the new penalties for delays remain unclear but would be a major change.
A White House spokeswoman, Natalie M. Strom, said “President Obama failed to realize the potential” of the council, and the Trump administration will take existing tools “and give them real teeth by increasing accountability.”
The Trump administration has proposed investing $200 billion in direct federal investment as part of an effort to leverage private, state and local funds totaling $1 trillion over 10 years. The administration, however, has yet to reveal the specifics of this plan, which would have to be approved by Congress.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) repeatedly warned this week of “Trump tolls from coast to coast” under the president’s private-sector-heavy plan. He also slammed far-reaching cuts in infrastructure spending outlined in the president’s proposed budget.
Still, there is hunger to improve U.S. infrastructure that crosses party and ideological lines.
“We may not see eye-to-eye on other issues,” said Orlando Bonilla, a laborer who immigrated from Nicaragua and built grocery stores before becoming a rep with the Laborers’ International Union of North America and attending Trump’s speech Friday. But despite a personal disagreement over immigration, “this is something we can support.”
Maryland Transportation Secretary Pete K. Rahn said he told Trump of the arduous history of the 18-mile Intercounty Connector, which connects Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. In addition to the costly 1,200-page environmental impact statement Trump referenced, another $370 million went to environmental mitigation, he said, calling that “an overreach.”
“When you’re dealing with federal agencies, it’s not even one department in one place you have to work with,” Rahn said.
The White House said Trump aims to cut permitting time from “10 years to two years.”
Kevin DeGood, an infrastructure specialist at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, said the president’s time frames were “not even remotely accurate.”
“The government-wide average for completing a full environmental impact statement . . . is just 4.6 years. This average includes things like new nuclear reactors,” DeGood said. The highway figure has fallen to 3.6 years, he said, though only 4 percent of such projects need such detailed reviews.