Trump touts infrastructure order, but veers off message


NEW YORK — President Trump signed an executive order on Tuesday designed to significantly shorten the time it takes federal agencies to approve road, highway, bridge and other infrastructure projects.

The directive establishes “one Federal decision” for whether major infrastructure projects can proceed, sets a two-year goal for completing reviews and ensures that federal agencies involved in the permitting process are held accountable by setting up a “quarterly scorecard” of their progress.

The new policy, which also aims to cut back on duplicative requests for information and late-stage changes in the approval process, was unveiled at Trump Tower in New York City. 

“I just signed a new executive order to dramatically reform the nation’s badly broken infrastructure permitting process,” the president said. “Just blocks away is the Empire State building. It took 11 months to build. But today, it could take as long as a decade.”

The announcement at Trump Tower was an effort to refocus on one of the president’s core messages as he struggles to contain the fallout over his handling of the racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., over the weekend. 

But an impromptu press conference after his infrastructure remarks quickly stepped on the message, turning into a wild, combative exchange with the press, in which Trump defended his initial response to the violent events and suggested that not all people attending the white supremacist rally were bad.

Trump held an infrastructure discussion earlier in the day at his high rise with members of his team, including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other policy aides.

Trump stood directly next to Chao during his remarks, one week after attacking her husband, Senate Majority Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), on Twitter. But allies and strategists do not expect Chao to resign over the controversy.

“I stand by my man — both of them,” Chao told reporters Tuesday.

Chao, who fielded questions from reporters after Trump spoke, appeared to grow frustrated that topics other than infrastructure kept coming up.

“We’re talking about infrastructure today,” she said. “I’m talking about infrastructure.”

Controversial flood provision

Tucked into the new executive order is a controversial provision that rescinds an Obama-era order requiring government-funded infrastructure projects in flood-prone areas to consider flood risk and the impacts of climate change. 

The Obama administration said the more stringent standards were necessary because of sea level rise associated with climate change.

But a White House spokesperson emphasized that state and local agencies could still use tougher project standards if they choose. 

The permitting push is part of an ongoing effort by the White House to streamline the lengthy construction approval process, which Trump has said can take up to 10 years.

Trump held up a giant flowchart on Tuesday to convey how many agencies and steps are involved in approving a single highway project. Then he whipped out a much shorter chart to show what the process will look under his new policy.

“I’m going to show it to the media, both real and fake media,” he said. “This is what it takes to get something approved today … and this is what we will bring it down to. This is less than two years. This is going to happen quickly. Let’s throw the other one away.”

Trump assembled an infrastructure task force, which has already identified “more than two dozen policies and rules that will streamline project delivery and environmental permitting,” according to Chao.

The Trump administration has long maintained that reducing regulatory red tape and eliminating duplicative steps in the approval process will not only speed up project delivery, but will also make projects more attractive to the private sector.

Trump’s infrastructure proposal, which has yet to be released, is expected to focus heavily on encouraging more public-private partnerships and streamlining the environmental review process.

Conservative groups, which have typically been leery of massive infrastructure spending, have been urging the administration to include major permit reforms in any rebuilding package. 

But critics worry that efforts to speed up the review process could lead to inadequate environmental reviews. They also say Trump already has a number of streamlining tools at his fingertips.

During an infrastructure messaging week in June, Trump promised to set up a new infrastructure council to help project managers “navigate the bureaucratic maze.”

But the panel, known as the Federal Permitting Improvement Steering Council, already exists and was established under President Obama. A White House spokesperson later clarified that the panel hasn’t been meeting its full potential.

Tags Elaine Chao Mitch McConnell Steven Mnuchin
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