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Trump slips infrastructure plan into budget

The Trump administration finally laid out its long-promised vision for a $ 1 trillion national infrastructure plan Tuesday — with nary a peep of fanfare and the president not even in the country to talk it up.

It arrived as a six-page fact sheet packaged with President Donald Trump’s $ 4.1 trillion proposed 2018 budget. As expected, it laid out a vision for $ 200 billion in direct federal spending over the next decade on needs such as roads, bridges, tunnels, railroads and expanded broadband, along with incentives for states, cities and private investors and efforts to reduce the burdens of regulations.

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“The administration’s goal is to seek long-term reform on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered and maintained,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told reporters Tuesday. She said the administration expects “to have more details forthcoming,” including a legislative package later this year, but described the concepts handed out Tuesday as “the main key principles.”

“I think they are simple and yet quite profound,” Chao said.

Even in skeletal form, the infrastructure document was several times longer than the one-page tax overhaul plan that the administration laid out last month.

But with Trump in the middle of his trip to the Middle East and Europe, and television coverage dominated by Monday’s terrorist attack in Britain and congressional hearings about Russia, Tuesday’s rollout was a muted affair after months of buildup as a bipartisan game-changer. Trump had given infrastructure a prime place in his election night speech and Feb. 28 address to Congress, pledging both times that it would create millions of jobs.

Democrats were also quick to note Tuesday that Trump’s budget would provide just $ 5 billion for the effort in fiscal 2018, with no details about where the money would go — or how it would be paid for.

“The ‘$ 200 billion investment’ is a 10-year figure with zero details about how or where that money is spent,” said Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the Transportation Committee, who called it a “sham.” Combined with Trump’s proposed budget cuts for the Department of Transportation, DeFazio charged, the president’s efforts amount to a recipe for “pushing the responsibility off federal balance sheets, and replacing it with unidentified incentives for Wall Street investors to invest in transportation.”

“President Trump’s campaign promises on infrastructure are crumbling faster than our roads and bridges,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement.

But Senate Commerce Chairman John Thune, whose committee in part oversees transportation legislation, said the document “recognizes important needs in our country and takes a long-term view on meeting those needs.”

“Federal funding is part of the equation and, as the initiative lays out, in the appropriate circumstances we also need to leverage private-sector capital and reform regulations that inflate project costs,” the South Dakota Republican said.

The principles outlined Tuesday largely reflect concepts that administration officials have floated since the election — that the plan will “leverage” private-sector spending power and concentrate federal dollars on “transformative” projects deemed regional or national priorities.

The document also says the administration will look to “appropriately divest from” certain transportation functions — a nod to Trump’s support for removing air-traffic-control operations from under the Federal Aviation Administration — and encourage state and local governments to figure out their own ways to fund infrastructure needs.

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But to Democrats, the promise of a new approach to infrastructure didn’t mollify their worries about cuts sprinkled through the administration’s proposed budget for the DOT. Schumer said Senate Democrats would “stand united” against the suggested cuts, which they say total far more than the $ 200 billion Trump proposed for his plan.

“The president’s proposal to slash American infrastructure investments is a job-killing, 180 degree turn away from his repeated promise of a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan,” the New York Democrat said. “The fuzzy math and sleight of hand can’t hide the fact that the President’s $ 200 billion plan is more than wiped out by other cuts to key infrastructure programs.”

Some of the proposal’s ideas for raising non-federal money for infrastructure also drew criticism. Those included its endorsement of charging tolls on existing Interstates, which didn’t sit well with the trucking industry’s major lobbying group.

“We encourage the Trump administration and Congress to follow their example and look for more efficient and sustainable funding mechanisms for this investment package,” said Bill Sullivan, the American Trucking Associations’ executive vice president for advocacy. His group noted that states like North Carolina and Virginia have deserted efforts to toll existing Interstates.

Unpredictable, controversial and confusing, Donald Trump's new plan has even budget experts scratching their heads.

The trade group representing travel plazas and truck stops also objected to more toll roads. “Under this proposal, the same people who have been paying fuel taxes to build and maintain these roads will have to pay tolls, too,” said Lisa Mullings, CEO of the National Association of Truck Stop Operators.

But as with any White House proposal requiring congressional action, lawmakers will be sure to put their own stamp on any infrastructure legislation they entertain. Chao has said Congress would probably take up an infrastructure package in the “third quarter.”

Trump’s proposed 2018 budget is expected to meet an even quicker fate.

“The appropriations committee is going to look at the president’s budget, but I expect that we will come up with our own approach,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the lead appropriator on the Senate Appropriations panel that sets DOT spending. “I will say that, in all the time that I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a single president’s budget survive the appropriations process.”

Tanya Snyder contributed to this report.

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