Chao commits to multiple funding tools for Trump’s infrastructure plan


President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the Transportation Department is calling for a mix of funding tools to help rebuild the nation’s ailing infrastructure.

During her confirmation hearing Wednesday, Elaine Chao backed Trump’s plan to use private financing for a massive infrastructure package.

But she also signaled that the incoming administration would be supportive of direct federal spending on transportation — the method favored by Democrats but generally panned by Republicans.

“I believe the answer is yes,” Chao said when pressed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on the issue.

{mosads}Testifying in front of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Chao did not provide specific details on the scope of Trump’s infrastructure package or how it should be paid for.

Chao said that she would try — but couldn’t promise — to share details with the panel about Trump’s infrastructure proposal within the next 30 days.

She assured lawmakers that the administration would collaborate with Congress on the topic and would be putting together a task force to explore infrastructure ideas.

“The pay-fors for any infrastructure proposal are challenging, and all have their particular champions and detractors,” Chao said. “There will be continuous and constant dialogue [with Congress], for the very simple reason we cannot do this alone.”

Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has been through the confirmation process multiple times before. She ran the Department of Labor under President George W. Bush and served as deputy Transportation secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration.

Chao received warm praises from both sides of the aisle Wednesday. She is widely expected to sail though her nomination.

“If you were to imagine an ideal candidate to tackle these challenges, it would be hard to come up with a more qualified nominee than the one before us,” said Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.).

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, ranking Democrat on the panel, said his wife and Chao are the “dearest of friends.”

“I have watched you as you have comported yourself in a previous administration as a Cabinet member, and it has been with grace and excellence that you have done so,” Nelson said. “I certainly look forward to you in this new administration doing the same.” 

Chao will be taking the helm of the Transportation Department as Trump promises to revitalize the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges and airports.

Trump has floated a proposal that would offer $137 billion in federal tax credits to private investors who back transportation projects, which he claims would unlock $1 trillion worth of infrastructure investment over 10 years.

Chao called Trump’s vision for repairing the nation’s infrastructure “ambitious”, “futuristic” and “comprehensive.” She echoed his calls for getting more private capital off the sidelines through public-private partnerships.

“It is important to note the significant difference between traditional program funding and other innovative financing tools, such as public-private partnerships,” Chao said. “We look forward to working with you to explore all the options, and to create a mix of practical solutions — both public and private — that provide the greatest cost-benefit to the public.”

“The government doesn’t have the resources to do it all,” Chao added.

Public-private partnerships — which have been advocated by both Democrats and Republicans — allow private firms to bid on transportation projects, build and maintain the project for a set amount of time, and recover costs through tolls or set state payments.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said last week that private-sector money should “be a part of the solution, instead of always thinking this is government-only.” And conservatives have warned Trump against putting forward anything that looks like President Obama’s economic stimulus package.

But Democrats worry that solely relying on private financing will leave out some critical infrastructure needs, since investors will only back projects like toll roads that can recoup their own investment costs.

Nelson told Chao that members are anxious to learn funding details about Trump’s proposal.

“As the infrastructure bill is put together, we will certainly be in constant communication with the Congress,” Chao said.

Chao committed to Trump’s promise to buy and hire American, even though she has expressed opposition to such polices in the past. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) pressed Chao on the issue after House GOP leadership stripped her so-called “Buy America” provision from a water bill last year.

“The president has made very clear his position on this,” Chao said. “Of course all Cabinet members will follow his policy.”

She also expressed support for streamlining regulations in any infrastructure proposal. A chief complaint of Obama’s “shovel-ready” transportation projects in the stimulus package is that they took too long to get off the ground.

“One of the major complaints is how long it takes for projects to be ready for bidding,” Chao said. “So the issue is not only how to fund infrastructure projects, but how to increase the pipeline of available projects for all groups, private sector included, to be able to participate.”

Tags Bill Nelson Donald Trump John Thune Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan Tammy Baldwin

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