Trump picks Elaine Chao for transportation secretary

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Friday that “nothing is off the table” as President Trump’s administration assembles a 10-year infrastructure plan, including the possibility of a federal gasoline tax increase.

Trump has previously said he is open to raising the tax, which has been set at 18.4 cents per gallon for unleaded fuel since 1993, to help fund his initiative. Lawmakers have been reluctant to seriously consider a tax hike for years.

Speaking to civic, business and elected officials in Louisville, Chao acknowledged that while the gas tax is the “easiest way to raise money, it has a very negative, disproportionate impact on those who are in the lower income levels.”

She said a key part of Trump’s plan will be letting companies invest in public works projects. Such collaborations between government and business – known as “public-private partnerships” – have been increasingly common in recent years.

(Those deals sometimes rely heavily on tolls, which critics have argued unevenly affect poor drivers.)

Indiana tapped its privatization law in selecting a group of companies to build and maintain the Lewis and Clark Bridge, the upriver crossing of the Ohio River Bridges Project. Kentucky passed a law allowing the partnerships in 2016.

“They’re not the answer to every infrastructure finance challenge, but they work well in many situations,” she said.

Chao said the Trump administration hopes Congress can take up infrastructure legislation this fall.

She did not mention the recently completed Louisville-area toll bridge project in her speech, or the Brent Spence Bridge connecting northern Kentucky with Cincinnati. Leaders there are trying to replace that span.

Chao was not made available to the news media after her speech.

In attendance at the Brown Hotel event was Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, Senate Transportation Committee chairman Sen. Ernie Harris, Kentucky Economic Development Secretary Terry Gill and other local and state officials.

The Trump proposal also is expected to include a separate program for rural areas. Chao said administration officials are still weighing whether to include a broadband in its plan.

But Juva Barber, executive director of the Kentuckians for Better Transportation group, said she was pleased to hear Chao mention the focus on rural infrastructure.

"I'm glad that the administration is going to make sure that they focus on rural Kentucky as well as urban Kentucky -- and we're excited to see the proposal.," she said.

Asked by an audience member what the Transportation Department is doing to accelerate the “transition” to electric vehicles, Chao said: “The problem with electric cars is consumer acceptance.” She noted that recharging stations, for example, are needed.

And she pointed out that the cars don’t contribute at the same levels to road funds because they rely less – if at all – on gasoline.

“These electric cars pay nothing and as they grow in volume, should some kind of a tax be placed on electric cars, perhaps on mileage traveled?”

Kentucky has weighed such a fee.

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