Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Potholes. Flight delays. Crumbling dams, spillways and bridges. The need for investment in our nation’s infrastructure is glaring, and the deterioration has been occurring unchecked for years. For the first time in a long time, Washington is proposing an innovative and long-overdue infrastructure package that goes beyond just maintenance and is anything but status quo.

Working together, Congress and the Trump administration are proposing a transformational package of bold reforms to build a 21st century system in America that accommodates technological advances in all modes of transportation. The president has made a $1 trillion promise, and it’s now Congress’ job to identify revenue, reform our permitting process and regulatory framework, and improve federal financing programs.

While finding new revenue is always a challenge, opportunities do exist. Last year, then-President Barack Obama signed into law a bill I authored, which will yield over $8 billion by reducing the federal real estate footprint. The Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (FASTA) established a program for liquidation of unneeded federal real property. The law waives burdensome reviews and streamlines the disposal process for more than 267,000 vacant or underutilized federal buildings. Profits from the sale of these properties could be reinvested in much-needed infrastructure projects elsewhere. Tax reform will also provide options for dedicated transportation revenue for our trust funds and new projects.

For these dollars to be used most efficiently, we must also slash bureaucratic red tape and streamline the environmental review and permitting process. The administration has made good progress in this area by holding federal agencies accountable for their performance, establishing a lead agency responsible for “One Federal Decision,” setting a two-year goal for environmental reviews and permitting, and creating a 90-day decision making time frame when documentation is complete. Congress has an opportunity to build on these tenets and provide additional tools to streamline the process by continuing to support an idea I championed to allow states to perform the environmental review and documentation process instead of relying on various federal agencies. This removes redundancy and reduces costs for participating states. The program has been so successful that we enhanced it in the 2015 highway bill.

In addition to environmental review and permitting, the Department of Transportation’s regulatory framework is too dependent on projections and bureaucratic calculations. Regulations should be performance-driven to ensure safety is top-of-mind. Performance-based regulations are grounded in real data and actual risk — not perceived threats — and reward successful operations with strong safety records. Taking this approach in guiding new technologies will remove government obstacles, provide certainty to industry and spur innovations on the cusp of development.

And finally, to provide an even higher return for the taxpayer, it’s critical that we enhance federal financing options like the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (TIFIA) program, Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing (RRIF) program and the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA). These programs provide low-cost access to credit for financing highway, bridge, rail, transit and drinking water projects among others. Tools like direct loans, loan guarantees and lines of credit assist public and private entities facilitate big projects by filling gaps in capital markets. Although successful, there is room for improvement, as not all categories of projects are eligible under TIFIA, RRIF and WIFIA. In California, we struggle with water storage and distribution. Important projects like dams and reservoirs are expensive and dependent on limited Bureau of Reclamation resources. In order to bring needed water storage to fruition, I have proposed the New WATER Act (H.R. 434) to attract new investment capital for development, construction and rehabilitation of these projects. Credit assistance under the program is available to public and private entities for creditworthy projects with long repayment periods. In order to be approved, projects must be capable of generating sustainable revenue streams. This commonsense tool would provide exponentially more investment in water storage at a low cost.

Thinking big is important for anticipating the future, but we cannot forget about our existing infrastructure. Those assets have significant value throughout their useful life. Policymakers should recognize that value and explore opportunities to leverage those assets. Attracting private sector interest and utilizing private sector expertise to reinvest and manage infrastructure is good business and will benefit the taxpayer. Congress and the Trump administration understand this. We have a rare opportunity to make transformational investments with policy reforms, and we will accomplish the task.

Republican Rep. Jeff Denham is Chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. He represents California’s 10th Congressional District.

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