The Starting Five

Five Cabinet secretaries faced questions from U.S. Senate on administration’s principles of infrastructure investment before the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on March 13. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Energy Secretary Rick Perry discussed how they would like to see Congress create a bipartisan infrastructure bill based on the administration’s four principles.

  • Stimulate at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure spending with $200 billion from the federal government
  • Shorten the permitting process
  • Invest in rural infrastructure
  • Improve training to attract qualified workers

Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said that Congress should be in favor of a bipartisan bill that funds infrastructure investment. “Both sides want to invest and modernize our infrastructure,” he said. “Both sides should come together on this and make it happen this year.”

Senators were reminded by the Cabinet members that the administration is looking to Congress to write an infrastructure bill and coalesce around ways to pay for it. Without discussing specific funding ideas, the secretaries emphasized that streamlining the permitting process would result in reduced infrastructure costs.

Transportation

“Streamlining the permitting process has all sorts of benefits. It can spring out more projects that would be available for the private sector to fund and finance. There are common-sensical ways [to lower costs] in avoiding duplication, doing concurrent rather than sequential permitting, getting rid of duplicative permitting, allowing sister agencies to talk with one another and share information,” she said.

Chao said that some estimates put the country’s infrastructure needs at $4 trillion. “We cannot address a challenge of this magnitude with federal resources alone or by borrowing,” she said. “That approach will crowd out the capital markets, hinder economic growth and job creation. The president’s plan allows the private sector to help in the building of our infrastructure.”

The secretary did not discuss ways to pay for the infrastructure needs and did not address shoring up the Highway Trust Fund.

Labor

Acosta highlighted the fact that several industries, including aggregates, saw the highest month-to-month employment growth rate since 1998. “As we build infrastructure, we must also ensure that we think about the American workforce that will build this infrastructure and then ultimately benefit from these efforts,” he said. Acosta offered four ways to improve the American workforce to obtain education for safe and stable jobs.

  • Extending Pell Grants to high quality, short term programs that provide students with certifications or credentials for in-demand jobs.
  • Reform Perkins career and technical programs to ensure that students have access to high quality technical education to develop skills.
  • Better target federal work study funds to help more students obtain apprenticeships to develop important workforce experience while they’re in school.
  • Reform occupational licensing requirements for qualified individuals that are working on our nation’s infrastructure projects.

Commerce

Ross said that reducing the permitting process from an average of eight years to under two means that America will build more quickly and cost-effectively. “It’s easy to estimate that something like a third of the cost of many infrastructure projects is consumed in legal bills, consulting bills and the inflationary effect of delays. If we can fix the regulatory [component] we have really lowered the amount states and localities have to pay,” he said. “If we are going to continue growing, creating jobs and developing the 21st century workforce, we must build this new infrastructure with American heart, American hands and American grit,” he said.

Agriculture

Perdue affirmed that streamlining regulations can be done while protecting America’s natural resources. “What we’re really talking about is not circumventing any environmental laws or protections…  It’s really moving things in a way that makes sense, point to point, with one federal decision and a case manager for federal permits,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t do these things concurrently rather than sequentially, which continues to delay the process.”

Energy

Perry noted that as a governor of Texas for 14 years, companies in the private sector continually said they are prone to invest in projects when regulations are clear, fair and certain. “The real key, I will suggest to you, is sending the message to the private sector that the private sector can invest and have a chance to return on that investment. They’ll come in and do it because they know the regulatory climate is fair and predictable,” he said. 

He praised West Virginia and other states that increased user fees on gasoline to pay for infrastructure. “If you’re going to build infrastructure, transportation infrastructure in particular, you’ve got three choices. You’ve got tax roads, you’ve got toll roads or you believe in the asphalt fairy. There are some options outside of those three; one is to send a powerful message to the private sector that you can come in and invest and not see the rules change in the middle of the game.”

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