Wichita Mayor Jeff Longwell left Washington after a meeting with President Trump on Monday hopeful of getting federal funding to fix a backup-prone freeway interchange in north Wichita.
Longwell was one of about two dozen elected officials from around the country invited to a briefing session on the president’s infrastructure plan, which seeks to divert about $200 billion from foreign aid to improve U.S. roads, bridges, ports and other facilities.
The plan is designed to use those federal funds to try to leverage state, local and private investment to ultimately pay for about $1.5 to $1.7 trillion in domestic infrastructure improvement. About $50 billion would be designated for rural projects under the president’s plan.
One project Longwell wants to get on the to-do list is the improvement of the freeway interchanges in north Wichita where I-235, I-135, K-254 and K-96 all come together within a short distance of each other. That complex of ramps and bridges is a notorious rush-hour bottleneck for people living in the northern suburbs.
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“Right now we’re building it all with state and local dollars,” Longwell said. “Any extra money to expedite that would be very beneficial to that project.”
Longwell said one takeaway for him was that the president sees “a direct correlation between fixing insfrastructure and economic development. That’s absolutely true and we (city officials) recognize that.”
Longwell said he got to meet the president and chat with him for a few minutes, along with meeting Trump’s daughter Ivanka and members of the White House staff.
According to a White House transcript, Trump told the group “we have to rebuild our infrastructure.”
“You know, I said this morning, as of a couple of months ago, we have spent $7 trillion in the Middle East — $7 trillion,” he said. “What a mistake. But it is what it is. This is what I took over. And we’re trying to build roads and bridges, and fix bridges that are falling down. And we have a hard time getting the money. It’s crazy.”
Another part of the Trump plan is to streamline the permit processes for building new infrastructure.
Longwell said one thing the president wants to change is that many projects require a sequence of government approvals. Trump’s plan, he said, is to change the process so the builders can have all the necessary permits considered at once.
According to a White House transcript, Trump said he wants to reduce pemitting time for major infrastructure projects from about 10 years to two, possibly one.
And he likened his infrastructure plan to his own efforts to rebuild a skating rink in New York’s Central Park when he was a private developer in the 1980s.
“It was a big deal at the time.” he said. “It remains a big deal. It took many, many years, and they (city officials) were unable to open it. And I said, you know, I’d like to be able to have my daughter Ivanka, who is with us — I’d like to be able to have her go ice skating sometime before she doesn’t want to ice skate. And I got involved. And I did it in a few months, and we did it for a tiny fraction — tiny fraction of the cost.
“And it’s really no different with a roadway. It’s no different with a bridge or tunnel, or any of the things that we’ll be fixing.”
One criticism of Trump’s plan has been that bringing in the private dollars he hopes for would require free roads to become toll roads to pay back private investors. Longwell said privatizing highways and toll roads wasn’t discussed in Monday’s meeting.
Earlier, Longwell announced he's quitting the U.S. Conference of Mayors because of the group's opposition to Trump.
Conference leaders announced they would boycott Monday's meeting after Trump threatened to pull federal funds from cities that don't participate in his administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants.