President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee to head transportation policy will deliver a strong endorsement at her confirmation hearing of his proposal to seek private investment funding for a massive infrastructure building program based on a "bold new vision."
Elaine Chao, the immigrant who rose to become a cabinet secretary in a previous Republican administration and is now being considered for secretary of transportation, said deteriorating transportation networks are jeopardizing the economy.
“I look forward to working with you to rebuild, refurbish and revitalize America’s infrastructure, so our economy can continue to grow, create good paying jobs for America’s working families and enhance our quality of life,” Chao said in remarks prepared for delivery at the hearing Wednesday.
While she stopped short of specifics such as how large the building program would be, she made clear she endorses Trump’s vision of relying on private money to pay for it so it won’t increase the deficit. Such so-called public-private partnerships typically rely on tolls or fees for new roadways, bridges and tunnels, generating revenue to allow investors to make a profit. Investors may also receive a tax break.
“As we work together to develop the details of President Trump’s infrastructure plan, it is important to note the significant difference between traditional program funding and other innovative financing tools, such as public-private partnerships,” she said. “In order to take full advantage of the estimated trillions in capital that equity firms, pension funds and endowments can invest, these partnerships must be incentivized with a bold new vision.”
Trump has promised to improve roads, bridges, airports, schools, electrical grids and other infrastructure to meet needs and boost the economy. Some of those areas are outside the Transportation Department’s purview.
During his Nov. 9 victory speech, he vowed, “We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as we rebuild it.’’
Chao, 63, was born in Taiwan and moved to the U.S. at age 8, three years after her father came to this country to establish a maritime shipping company. She received an MBA from Harvard University and has held a number of posts in government, including secretary of labor under President George W. Bush.
She is no stranger to the nomination process and is considered unlikely to face strong opposition. She has been confirmed by the Senate for previous posts, is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, and has testified before congressional hearings dozens of times.
In the introduction to her statement, she jokes “I will be working to ‘lock in’ the Majority Leader’s support tonight over dinner.”
As chief of the Transportation Department, she would play a key role in Trump’s infrastructure plan.
The president-elect has not said precisely what his proposal will be or when he will offer it. Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s nominee for treasury secretary, has suggested an infrastructure bank. An Oct. 27 paper by advisers Wilbur Ross, the nominee for Commerce Department secretary, and Peter Navarro, named to lead a new White House National Trade Council, called for creating a government tax credit to help spur $1 trillion in private investment over 10 years.
Some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, have said they would be willing to work with Trump on infrastructure. Conversely, some fiscally conservative Republicans have been cooler to the idea.
Chao may also play a role in a proposal by House Republicans to spin off the Federal Aviation Administration’s air-traffic division into a nonprofit corporation. The proposal died last year in the Senate.
Proponents of such a plan say that most other developed countries, including Canada and the U.K., have created a similar arrangement and it has helped speed the adoption of new technology. Such a system funded by user fees would provide more stable funding than the existing government agency, which was subject to automatic cuts known as sequestration, they say.
Opponents, including many Democrats in Congress, argue that the House plan would give too much control over a new system to airlines, the government should maintain control over aircraft because of national security concerns and the existing U.S. system is not broken.
Without tipping her hand on the issue, Chao said air-traffic efficiency needs to be improved and she would work on it through the FAA’s decades-long program to bring on new technology known as NextGen.
She also vowed to make it easier to get approvals for transportation construction projects, and said she would work with industry on burgeoning new automation technology in self-driving vehicles and unmanned aircraft.
“We want to work with Congress to position the federal government as a catalyst for safe,
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