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USDOT touts major investment in infrastructure, but it all goes to highways

4 Sep 2019 | Posted by | 0 Comments | , ,

The INFRA grant program was intended to repair our crumbling infrastructure. So why is half of the money going toward expanding highways? 

The Trump administration recently announced $855 million in infrastructure grants through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) discretionary competitive grant program. INFRA grants have been touted by this administration as a major way the federal government is rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges, but after examining the project list, much of the funding is going to highway expansion, not repair. 

INFRA Grants, established  by the FAST Act in 2015, are supposed to promote regional economic vitality goals and are evaluated by a set of criteria, including the project’s potential for innovation. But we know that highways alone don’t achieve economic vitality and are not innovative investments. 

So what kind of infrastructure projects received grants from USDOT? We took a look at the latest round of grants and analyzed the type of projects receiving funding. Of the $855 million awarded in this most recent round, 78 percent, or $667 million, went to highway projects and only a fraction went to projects that contained a multimodal or resiliency component as described in the project fact sheets

And while politicians and policymakers continue to pay lip service to the notion of prioritizing repair and “fix-it-first,” we continue to have little to show for all the rhetoric. Repair Priorities showed that states are spending just as much on expansion as repair with their core federal transportation dollars. That trend extends to these INFRA grants, where about equal amounts were given to projects that expanded or added new capacity as repaired existing roads and bridges.  

As with the BUILD grant program, the Trump administration is also steering a greater share of this program’s dollars toward rural areas. Though 25 percent of the INFRA program’s grants are required to go to rural projects, the USDOT has far exceeded that requirement with 54 percent of all funding going toward rural areas in this most recent round of grants. Funding only road projects in rural areas, rather than innovative multimodal projects, leaves many of these communities without transportation options and stuck in their cars. 

The INFRA grants announcement is unfortunately another example of USDOT prioritizing building more highways over multimodal investment. States are already guaranteed over $40 billion in federal funding for highways, but too many states spend that on expanding highways rather than maintaining what they already have. 

 And just like with the BUILD program, this begs the obvious question: Why use a new, flexible, competitive grant program ostensibly for “fixing our nation’s infrastructure” (as DOT says) merely to fund new highways when highways already receive billions in dedicated federal funding? 

If DOT does want to “repair our crumbling infrastructure,” a decent start would be to award 100% of INFRA grants towards projects that actually prioritize repair. And perhaps after that, Congress could take the logical step of requiring states to actually reduce their maintenance and repair backlogs rather than creating new grant programs to fulfill what should be a core function of the overall federal program: taking care of our existing assets.