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Trump plans week-long focus on infrastructure, starting with privatizing air traffic control

President Trump is talking infrastructure this week, inside and outside of Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

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 at the White House.

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 investigations into his administration’s ties to Russia.

The president has invited executives from major airlines to join him as he kicks off the week with one of his more controversial plans: spinning off the air traffic control functions of the Federal Aviation Administration to a nonprofit corporation.

It’s an idea that has been tried many times before, dating back to the Clinton administration and, most recently, last year in legislation championed by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee. His bill never made it to the Senate, where several key GOP members resisted the idea of transferring government assets to a corporation.

Advocates of the idea argue that privatization would speed up glacial efforts by the FAA to modernize a system that still relies on land-based radar at a time when other countries have switched to GPS systems that allow more direct routes at lower costs.

This is what President Trump is proposing in his transportation budget. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration is hoping that with a Republican president, the objections of GOP senators will subside. While a formal introduction of most of Trump’s infrastructure plans are probably months away, the White House plans to send its principles for overhauling the air traffic control system to Congress separately this week.

Some Democrats have voiced support for privatization efforts, but others sharply question whether it should be considered a priority, given more pressing infrastructure needs.

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, the president 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.”

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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.

Trump’s first trip overseas as president

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) sits next to Tunisia's President Beji Caid Essebsi (C) and speaks to U.S. President Donald Trump (R) as they attend a G7 expanded session during the G7 Summit in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, May 27, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY (Philippe Wojazer)

It’s unclear whether Trump’s promised infrastructure package, for which the administration hopes to attract bipartisan support, will fare 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.”

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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 conference call with reporters, Trump administration officials acknowledged the timing of their broader infrastructure package remains up in the air but said that Congress could take action more immediately on a separate bill divorcing air traffic control functions from the FAA.

For months now, Cohn has been making presentations to interested parties, arguing the benefits of moving to a new GPS-based 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 as part of its broader $35.8 billion modernization effort known as NextGen.

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Aides say Trump’s proposal will be largely based on Shuster’s legislation. The White House previously called his bill “an excellent starting point” for separating more than 30,000 FAA workers from the government — about 14,000 air traffic controllers and more than 16,000 who are working on the FAA’s current modernization program.

Although elements of the ­modernization program have come online, ­reports by the Government ­Accountability Office and the Transportation Department’s inspector general have portrayed the effort as bogged down in bureaucracy.

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.

Another large point of contention has been the makeup of a board that would oversee the nonprofit corporation.

The move to a corporation has been tentatively endorsed by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, which has argued that spinning off controllers into a private entity would protect them from the threat of government shutdowns and uncertain federal funding.

Meanwhile, other trade groups, including the National Business Aviation Association and the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, have said that private air traffic management would give large airlines too much control and threaten private aviation in smaller communities.

In the call with reporters, Cohn pledged that in Trump’s plan “there is money to make sure that rural airports get protected.”

A union representing FAA technical workers has also said it “extremely concerned” about spinning off air traffic control functions.

“Privatizing the air traffic control system is a risky and unnecessary step,” Mike Perrone, president of the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, said in a statement in March after Trump signaled interest in moving in that direction.

A recent White House budget document points out that dozens of other nations have moved toward separating air traffic control from the government.

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.

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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.

Staff writer Ashley Halsey III contributed to this report.