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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Trump transport plans: From new tolls to Saudi funds

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao listens at left as

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao listens at left as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with business leaders in the State Department Library of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Credit: AP / Evan Vucci

Crucial details are still to be revealed and negotiated before President Donald Trump’s big infrastructure proposal approaches reality. The plan is politically significant for the bipartisan support many hoped it would generate.

Up to this week, its unusual aspects receivced the most attention.

For one, it was announced that Saudi Arabia pledged $20 billion to the private investment firm Blackstone Group, whose chief executive is Steve Schwartzman, a presidential adviser.

Blackstone has been looking to invest in toll roads, airports and other public projects. The Trump program calls for a big role for private capital, and his ally Schwartzman said he’d raise and borrow way more than just the Saudi piece.

“The administration’s goal is to seek long-term reform on how infrastructure projects are regulated, funded, delivered and maintained,” Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said. That seems to include pushing costs from the federal government onto states, localities and private entities.

There are concerns, of course, about which private interests, foreign and domestic, might profit from public assets.

Trump’s 2018 budget includes giving states the option of placing tolls on interstate highways.

“I’m not a big fan of tolling. I don’t like paying for a road twice,” said Rep. Sam Graves (R-Missouri), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s relevant subcommittee.

While terms of private investment and profit become a complex multi-billion dollar question, the basic notion is familiar. “Public-private partnerships” have been a popular option in recent years.

In his budget, Trump called for $200 billion over 10 years to “incentivize” private, state and local spending on infrastructure.

Also discussed: Paying regional and state governments a “bonus” to get them to sell off assets to fund new projects.

Such a new arrangement draws interest from many entities, such as Goldman Sachs. Gary Cohn, its former president, happens to be pushing the privatization as director of Trump’s National Economic Council, which prompted Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to urge his recusal.

Big jobs, of course, already go on under pre-Trump funding methods. Major new bridge projects in New York, for example, include the Tappan Zee, Kosciuszko and Goethals spans.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has asked the White House to intervene in finding a solution to “deplorable” conditions at Penn Station given its frequent service disruptions.

For the moment, however, Senate Democrats say Trump’s budget asks more in cuts to these programs than it would add.


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