Federal Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said that President Donald Trump's plans to privatize the nation's air traffic control system are crucial to modernizing future air transportation.
The Republican and wife of GOP Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spoke to a lunch crowd Friday at the Brown Hotel in Louisville organized by Greater Louisville Inc., the metro chamber of commerce. She altered her prepared remarks on recent initiatives at the agency to mention that McConnell was expected back in Kentucky — but his flight was delayed.
Chao delivered a rundown on Trump's plans to sharply cut the federal government's funding for rebuilding bridges, roads, and rail lines in favor of shifting the burden to states, cities and corporate partners for the greater share on future projects.
Part of the vision involves placing the governance and financing of air traffic control under a nonprofit, nongovernmental cooperative. Safety oversight would remain under the Federal Aviation Administration.
The change will "liberate air traffic control operations from the vagaries of the annual congressional appropriations process," Chao said, and speed acquisition of new tools and technology that now is slowed by "bureaucratic government procurement rules."
Trump has one change by the cooperative — using digital satellite-based tracking systems, rather than land-based radar, to guide domestic flights.
Chao drew a direct line between the government's current system and flight delays, congestion and a 20-percent increase in the time it takes to fly between certain cities, compared with 25 years ago.
Canada spun off its system more than 20 years ago, and it's done so with declines in user fees and rates, she said.
The secretary acknowledged when responding to submitted questions from the audience that getting Congress to back the proposals will be "very heavy lifts."
Critics say Trump pulled a bait-and-switch on infrastructure improvements, campaigning on a plan to plow $1 trillion into rebuilding projects. His recent budget proposal offers $200 billion to "leverage" the $1 trillion in investment over the next decade.
Some transportation planners have argued that without more federal funds committed for big projects, private investors will be reluctant to fill the gap. The goal to privatize the air traffic control system is certain to spur questions about oversight and public accountability.