Chao: Infra bill could be ready in May

The transportation secretary told business leaders a plan may be ready next month, with the administration pivoting to infrastructure after failing to pass a healthcare bill.

A federal infrastructure package could be released as soon as the end of May, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told a group of business leaders last week.

Chao’s comments suggest the timing of an infrastructure proposal, which some Republicans expected to be pushed to 2018, could be moved up following the defeat of President Trump’s healthcare reform. Trump told The New York Times that he is considering linking infrastructure with tax reform or another try at a healthcare bill in hopes of bringing Democrats on board.

At Tuesday’s town hall meeting, the administration stressed the need to ease the regulatory burden, with Chao insisting that “money is not the problem”. Later at the same event, President Trump presented an oversized chart listing federal regulations for highway construction and said his administration would expedite the process from 10 years to under a year.

But the president also reiterated his pledge to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure spending and “perhaps even more”. Earlier, economic advisor Gary Cohn said the administration has taken “the broadest interpretation” of infrastructure.

While infrastructure spending was a major theme in Trump’s campaign and a rare issue with bipartisan support, Republican lawmakers seemed poised to first tackle issues such as healthcare, tax reform and immigration. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the item would be on the agenda during Trump’s first 200 days in office, but even that assessment seemed optimistic given hesitation amongst Republicans to support any major spending initiatives.

On Wednesday, Chao reportedly met with Republican lawmakers to brief them on the status of the plan. But while infrastructure may now be a priority, reaching a consensus on questions such as the balance between private and public spending and means of paying for the public share may prove difficult.

“To me it still seems pretty far-fetched to think that we are going to have a very detailed plan coming out in the next month or two,” Joseph Kane, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told sister title Infrastructure Investor. Kane, who co-authored a paper calling an infrastructure bill a “Washington fantasy” at the moment, said that the release of a broad framework is “within the realm of possibility”.

Though there is a bipartisan consensus over the need to address infrastructure, Democrats favour direct spending while many Republicans are looking for a focus on private investment. After Chao’s remarks, two Democratic members of Congress wrote a letter to the secretary saying they were “disturbed” by her claim that funding is not the problem and touting proposed legislation to fund infrastructure improvements by upping gas and diesel taxes.

“More and more ‘streamlining’ is not the answer to our infrastructure crisis nor the principal roadblock,” Congressman Peter DeFazio, the top Democrat on the house transportation committee, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton said in the letter. “We cannot streamline our way out of our funding shortfall.”