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Trump's infrastructure plan cheered, but funds short

WASHINGTON -- Panned as a toll-road nightmare, a plot to pave wetlands and worse, President Trump's proposal for $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure spending has also met some applause. In San Francisco.

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Carolyn Lochhead
, San Francisco Chronicle

WASHINGTON -- Panned as a toll-road nightmare, a plot to pave wetlands and worse, President Trump's proposal for $1.5 trillion in new infrastructure spending has also met some applause. In San Francisco.

``He's really the first person from his party to name a number and say we're going to shoot for that number,'' said Jim Wunderman, president and chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business-backed public policy group. ``It's different to have a Republican president say 'We're going to spend money on infrastructure' and mean it.''

The proposal Trump announced in his State of the Union address last week was directed at fulfilling a major campaign promise, but came without details. He set the goal at $1.5 trillion, and called on Congress to deliver legislation that meets that number by leveraging state and local money and ``where appropriate'' tapping private funds. A written summary of the president's plan included just $200 billion in federal money over 10 years.

Trump also wants to shave the permit process for new infrastructure projects to two years or less.

``We will build gleaming new roads, bridges, highways, railways and waterways across our land,'' Trump said.

Democrats in Congress are already lining up against the proposal's funding scheme. Even Republicans say the plan needs more money, but they add that the presidential push could help unblock decades of bipartisan neglect of roads, bridges, water systems, airports, transit systems and other public facilities.

``I can appreciate that the president is a big thinker,'' said Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., one of the nine Californians on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. ``We obviously have a lot more work to do to find the revenue ... but I think it's got legs and we are moving forward.''

Details of the administration's thinking came out last week in a leaked summary that sent critics to the barricades.

The plan would override bedrock environmental laws, critics said, while the offer of $200 billion over 10 years in federal money is a far cry from Trump's $1.5 trillion promise. The difference would ostensibly be made up by leveraging private funds at extravagant rates that critics said are at best unrealistic and at worst could amount to selling off public assets.

The plan would also shift much of the financial burden to state and local governments.

Even Denham said Congress will need to ``at least double'' the $200 billion Trump proposed.

Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier of Concord in Northern California, who sits on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee with Denham, called Trump's plan a ``con job.''

``A kind way would be to describe it as unrealistic and unfeasible, and a more direct way would be to say it's a con job,'' said DeSaulnier, who worked on infrastructure issues for years in the state Legislature before entering Congress in 2015.

DeSaulnier said Trump's plan relies on ``voodoo financing'' that ``doesn't begin to address the $1.5 trillion we need,'' while trying to ``privatize as much of infrastructure as possible.''

Another committee member, Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif., said the administration's proposals to cut mass transit and other existing infrastructure to offset the cost of infrastructure improvements turns the whole thing into a wash.

``You have to pay for this stuff at some point,'' Huffman said.

A big reason why the nation's roads and bridges are in such sorry shape is that both parties have been loath to increase the 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, last raised in 1993. Revenue from the tax goes into the highway trust fund, which is now close to bankruptcy.

In something of a bipartisan breakthrough in itself, Denham and Huffman both suggested an increase in the gas tax or a vehicle mileage tax as a potential revenue source.

``Cars are getting more efficient, we've got electric cars that are growing pretty rapidly, so we're going to have to address all of those different users who are on the roads,'' Denham said.

Critics were skeptical about turning to the private sector for funding.

Private funds are no panacea for most infrastructure, said DeSaulnier, pointing to a bipartisan report by the committee that found only a limited role for such financing.

``We talked to people in Ireland, Spain, France, Chile, you look at different models,'' DeSaulnier said of his work in the state Legislature. Private companies built Santiago, Chile's, airport by using the airport's future revenue to raise cash, he said.

``Which isn't really any different from what happened with the Golden Gate Bridge all those years ago,'' he said. The city approved a $30 million bond issue in 1930 but was unable to sell the bonds until Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini bought them all on the strength of the bridge's toll revenues.

``In that case it worked out, but it's not enough to do what we need,'' DeSaulnier said.

California alone has a list of more than $100 billion in projects the governor issued last spring that remains current. The state plowed ahead on its own, enacting a new gasoline and diesel tax that took effect in November. The state expects it will raise $54 billion over the next decade to help rebuild roads and transit.

Trump's plan also foresees potentially stripping federal environmental agencies of their ability to block projects, a move that environmentalists say is a terrible idea and a nonstarter in the Senate, where Republicans would need Democratic votes to pass legislation.

``The whole thing with permits is a diversion,'' said Scott Slesinger, legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. ``The problem with infrastructure is the money to build the infrastructure.''

He pointed to a $90 billion backlog of projects under the Army Corps of Engineers that have cleared all environmental reviews, but are stuck because the Corps' budget is $5 billion a year.

``The problem is not NEPA,'' he said, referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental reviews of projects. ``The problem is where is the $85 billion.''

``I would beg to differ,'' said Wunderman, who also sits on the Water Emergency Transportation Authority board which oversees San Francisco Bay ferries. ``Along the waterfront of the bay, try getting any project done.''

``It takes eight years from the time we conceive to build a terminal to the time we actually could possibly get it done,'' Winderman said. Most of the delays, he said, are for public projects, ``rail systems, roads, water transit, you name it, and it just takes way too long.''

``We know we need to do projects in ways that are consistent with a good environment,'' he said. ``It's not that projects should be done haphazardly. By no means. But come on. The way we're doing it these days is really way out of line with public need.''

If Congress can come up with the money, he said, ``it makes sense to invest those funds in a way that can deliver the projects in somebody's lifetime.''

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