Trump pivots to infrastructure as he enters bruising week

The White House next week plans a full-throated infrastructure push, including unveiling more details on its vision for overhauling both the nation’s air traffic control system and federal permitting requirements for road projects.

The administration will spend several days rolling out at least some more details about priorities for its $1 trillion infrastructure plan and talking up the need for additional investment, during a week that’s otherwise expected to be full of loud and potentially damaging news about the FBI and Russia.

So far the administration has offered few details on its infrastructure proposals, aside from a six-page fact sheet it slipped into its 2018 budget proposal last month.

President Donald Trump will kick off the week Monday in the Oval Office by rolling out legislative principles encouraging Congress to split air traffic control away from the Federal Aviation Administration and place it under a private, non-governmental entity – a controversial idea that has run into flak from lawmakers of both parties and sectors of the aviation industry itself.

On Wednesday, he’ll travel to Ohio and Kentucky for a speech that touches on waterways and rural America, followed by a Thursday meeting in the White House with mayors and governors and a Friday address at the Department of Transportation.

In outlining its FAA principles, the administration will also propose changes in the way it pays for much of the national aviation system, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn said Friday. He said it will embrace user fees in place of the current excise tax system, similar to a Republican plan expected in the House.

Cohn also stressed that the administration will aim to ensure general aviation pilots and rural airports are “protected" under the air traffic control overhaul. That suggests that whatever the administration puts out next week will seek to blunt the serious criticism that business aviation interests and rural interests, both of which hold sway in the Senate, have leveled against past proposals.

“There are enormous benefits for all U.S. citizens in doing this,” Cohn told reporters Friday.

Air traffic control legislation that House Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) offered in 2016, and which he is expected to introduce again this summer, provided the starting point for those principles, a White House official said. Though they’ll be “very similar,” he said to expect some differences — though he would not elaborate.

“This will be more like principles you would see in a transmittal to the Hill that is more specific in terms of what the administration supports, and lays out a framework for Congress to then draft legislation off of,” the White House official said.

The White House’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint included a three-page fact sheet praising certain concepts in Shuster’s plan, but with few other details. Monday’s announcement will be the most revealing look yet at the administration’s thinking on the issue. Shuster is expected to attend the White House festivities, which will include an announcement in the Rose Garden.

In his speech Wednesday in Ohio and Kentucky, Trump will outline more about his infrastructure vision and how his administration plans to support rural and “transformative” projects. Cohn noted that inland waterways in particular rely largely on federal money for maintenance – Trump’s budget proposed creating a fee to boost the money paid by commercial users of the system.

That visit is sure to include overtures to rural states that have registered concerns about the administration’s reliance on public-private partnerships to help leverage financing toward the $1 trillion goal of his infrastructure plan. State officials and lawmakers especially in rural areas have repeatedly cautioned against leaning too heavily on these kinds of partnerships, because the kinds of projects investors are willing to risk capital on require recouping their money through through tolling or other fees, which is considered less practical in less-populated areas.

White House officials said infrastructure spending in rural areas under their plan won’t look much different from current public spending, but they’ll be looking to cities and some states to take on more of their infrastructure needs and create revenue streams to fund them.

One thing the White House won’t spend much time on next week is getting more specific on how it plans to cover the federal share of its infrastructure vision. Officials have yet to determine how much of that work they’ll leave to Congress.

“We’re currently debating the best way to approach that," an administration official said.

The White House will host a bipartisan group of governors and mayors to talk about infrastructure on Thursday, and on Friday Trump will give a speech at DOT on overhauling regulations around roads and rail, with a focus on changes to the permitting process for those projects.

“Time is money," Cohn said. "The cost of infrastructure goes up dramatically as time goes on in the approval process."

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