Trump’s infrastructure plan focuses on reforms, not just more spending

glass of water
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glass of water

Last month, President Trump released details of the White House’s plan to rebuild and revitalize America’s infrastructure network. It outlines a bold vision encompassing everything from traditional transportation infrastructure such as highways, bridges and transit systems, to public water systems and even broadband internet access.

Taking a broad view of our national infrastructure is incredibly important. It highlights the reality that Americans don’t just rely on safe roads. Twenty-first century infrastructure is comprised of a network of surface transportation, water utilities, the nation’s energy grid and internet connectivity, among other systems.

Too often, “infrastructure plans” are a pile of federal dollars funneled into projects erroneously deemed “shovel ready” with the average taxpayer rarely seeing benefits. For example, corrupt companies like Solyndra received huge federal loans from the Obama stimulus, then defaulted on the loans and folded, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

President Trump’s infrastructure plan takes on the mountain of regulatory hurdles that slow down the projects critical for improving and maintaining our national infrastructure.

One important component is water infrastructure, which rarely gets the attention it deserves. Public drinking water, wastewater, and waterways systems are often unseen cogs in the machine that drives our economy and delivers affordable and efficient utilities to American businesses and homes. Yet, these projects face formidable obstacles in the form of bureaucratic red tape.

So how does bureaucracy slow down improvements in infrastructure? One way is the lack of confidence that approved permits will remain approved, and the fear of a government agency revoking permits after the fact with no cause.

That’s what happened in West Virginia just over a decade ago when the Army Corps of Engineers issued a Section 404 permit, which regulates the discharge of dredged or fill material into waters of the United States, for the Spruce No. 1 mine project. For ten years prior, an extensive environmental review process was closely followed with full participation by the Environmental Protection Agency. After receiving approval, the mine operated within compliance of the permit with no violations.

Yet just two years later, with a new administration and a new EPA director, the federal government reneged on Spruce mine’s lawfully obtained and fully complied-with permits. Despite the decade of environmental review, the lack of any violations of the permit, and previous EPA approval, the permit was revoked with a retroactive veto. During litigation questioning the EPA’s authority to retroactively rescind a permit, Judge Amy Berman Jackson said the EPA used “magical thinking” in attempting to justify its post-permit veto power.

I and many likeminded Americans consider this a violation of due process and a clear signal to the private sector that they cannot rely on a system that should impartially, fairly, and consistently apply regulatory authority. Every day, Americans rely on a permit from a local, state, or federal government to keep their businesses open. If bureaucrats at an agency like the EPA can revoke a permit for no reason, how can business owners be confident they’ll be in business the very next day?

The Trump administration understands the private sector’s reliance on a steady and certain regulatory approval process. An important inclusion in the president’s infrastructure plan is a provision to reform the Section 404 permitting process by streamlining which agencies have final approval for Section 404 permits. President Trump’s plan empowers the Army Corps of Engineers with sole authority to make jurisdictional determinations regarding “waters of the United States” while continuing to work closely with the EPA.

This is similar to legislation I introduced that prevents the EPA from preemptively or retroactively revoking a permit when the permit holders are in full compliance. Improving our nation’s infrastructure will require engaging and working with the private sector. The continuing threat of having these permits revoked, leaving operations in full compliance unsure of whether they’ll be able to continue their work the next day, is counterproductive.

If we are to focus our efforts on rebuilding American infrastructure, simply spending taxpayer dollars is not the answer. We have to encourage private sector investment and eliminate the unnecessary regulatory barriers that give the private sector pause when considering large projects that require permits. I applaud the Trump administration for viewing long-term infrastructure investment with a wider lens and including major regulatory reform in their proposal.

Gibbs represents Ohio’s 7th District and is a member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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