CONCORD - Gov. Chris Sununu said a private White House discussion with President Donald Trump and top Cabinet officials left him convinced a comprehensive infrastructure spending plan would win support on Capitol Hill and that breaking down regulatory barriers to highway projects could become part of Trump's legacy.
While official Washington remained fixated on former FBI Director Jim Comey's testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee Thursday, Sununu met with a select group of governors, mayors and tribal leaders to brainstorm on how to streamline federal permitting and unlock more private investment on road, bridge and other public construction work.
In a telephone interview later, Sununu said Trump, as a career builder of hotels, casinos and housing complexes, is uniquely qualified to bring about systemic change.
"We have a President who is a builder, someone who not only knows how to get things done and bring plans to fruition but also someone who has faced how federal agencies can slow down or even block his progress," Sununu said.
"I think you're going to see this become a major priority of his, making the federal government more of a partner and less of a barrier to these projects becoming a reality."
During a major speech in Cincinnati on Friday, Trump displayed binders of what he called "nonsense" paperwork for an 18-mile toll road in Maryland and vowed to invigorate an existing federal permitting council so local officials could track the progress of pending requests.
"We are here to think big, be bold and rise above the partisan squabbling in Washington, D.C.," Trump said.
For more than a year, candidate Trump talked about a $1 trillion infrastructure investment, but nearly five months on the job he's put little detail to the concept and no plan has been submitted to Congress.
Trump's broad outline calls for using $200 billion in federal tax breaks over 10 years to leverage four times that much in state, local and private spending. Observers say it's the details that will determine whether that's a realistic goal.
"The idea that you can spur a larger amount of infrastructure funding than the federal dollars is not, in and of itself, unique," said Jacob Leibenluft, a senior adviser at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning fiscal policy think tank. "But it's pretty important to explain how you do it."
Delays cost money
Sununu said the message he delivered to Trump, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and other top officials was to stay focused on how to speed up permitting, even if sometimes that means giving local and state governments the answer they don't want to hear.
"I know many developers, and governors for that matter, would rather get no for an answer from the federal government on a project within six months than to have to wait years and years before getting any answer at all," Sununu said.
The widening of Interstate 93 from the Massachusetts line to Manchester is a good example of how costly delays can be, Sununu said.
The idea of widening the 20-mile stretch to eight lanes first came up when Sununu's father, John H. Sununu, was governor in the mid-1980s. At that time, the estimated cost was just under $200 million.
Environmental studies, permitting delays and a lack of a stable source to pay for the project delayed it for more than 20 years.
The most recent estimate to complete the job is $812 million.
"We made the point to the administration we'd take 70 percent of resources the federal government gives us now if that money would come without the inevitable delays in permits and the time to get into compliance with federal rules," Sununu said.