$1.5 Billion Department of Transportation Grant Announced
Emily Pollock posted on December 20, 2018 |
The Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York’s most famous attractions, as seen from water level. One of the projects supported by the DoT’s new round of BUILD funding is rehabilitating the bridge’s masonry arches for the first time in more than a hundred years. (Image courtesy of Postdlf, Wikimedia Commons.)
The Brooklyn Bridge, one of New York’s most famous attractions, as seen from water level. One of the projects supported by the DoT’s new round of BUILD funding is rehabilitating the bridge’s masonry arches for the first time in more than a hundred years. (Image courtesy of Postdlf, Wikimedia Commons.)

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that it will be funding 91 transportation infrastructure projects through the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grant program. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao calls the $1.5 billion in funding “a down payment on this administration’s commitment to America’s infrastructure.”

BUILD started its life in 2009 as TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), which was aimed at helping local governments fund road, rail, transit and port infrastructure projects that might otherwise have difficulty securing funding. The federal administration attempted to cut TIGER entirely at the beginning of 2018, but the U.S. House Representatives and Senate instead decided to increase the program’s budget. And the Trump administration changed the program’s focus to emphasize projects in rural areas, and private-public partnerships that share some of the cost with corporations. According to the DOT, this was done to “re-balance a ten-year, historical under investment in rural communities.”

An online advertisement for the retooled BUILD program (formerly known as TIGER), emphasizing its focus on rural projects and projects that have significant impact in their region. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation.)
An online advertisement for the retooled BUILD program (formerly known as TIGER), emphasizing its focus on rural projects and projects that have significant impact in their region. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation.)

This year, the program received 851 applications, nearly double the number of applications it received last year. These applications came from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories, and totalled $10.8 billion. In the pared-down list of finalists, Hawaii was the only state that did not receive a grant.

In this round of grants, the maximum grant a project could receive was $25 million for a single project, an amount that was awarded to 12 projects. The minimum funding that a project could receive was $5 million for an urban project, or $1 million for a rural project. The smallest project on the list was a $1.29 million vehicle maintenance facility and fueling station to serve New Mexico’s North Central Regional Transit.

What Got Funded (And What Didn’t)

While the list of funded projects is diverse, there are some commonalities among them.

The majority of projects were traditional physical, concrete-based endeavours, although there were some notable exceptions. Colorado’s V2X Technology Safety and Mobility Improvement Project won $20 million for its plan to create a commercial-scale vehicle-to-everything (V2X) environment, allowing for a connection between vehicles and the environment they’re operating in. Likewise, Las Vegas received $5 million for a project that includes autonomous vehicle service, pedestrian safety devices, and smart transit shelters in their medical district.

Another significant trend was the tendency toward rehabilitating old infrastructure rather than building new projects. Over a third of the grants were awarded to projects explicitly labeled as “reconstruction,” “renewal,” or “improvement” projects. One of the most high-profile rehabilitation projects on the list is the Brooklyn Bridge Approach Arches and Towers Rehabilitation, which will put $25 million toward renovating the masonry arches on the Brooklyn Bridge for the first time in 135 years.

This focus on improvements points toward one of the most significant trends in American infrastructure: a serious funding backlog. The 2017 American Society of Civil Engineers infrastructure report card gave overall infrastructure in the U.S. a D+ grade. Bridges and ports scored a relatively high C+, whereas roads received a D+, and transit got a D-. The report, which characterized America's roads as "crowded, frequently in poor condition, chronically underfunded, and ... becoming more dangerous," mentioned that more than two out of five miles of urban interstate are chronically congested, and one in five miles of highway pavement is in poor condition. The section on transit said that many Americans have "inadequate" access to public transit, and reported a $90 billion backlog in transit investment.

The American Public Transportation Association released a statement from President Paul P. Skoutelas saying the organization was "pleased" at the increase in funding. "We are encouraged that the percent of public transit grants has increased from the last fiscal year,” said Skoutelas. “These BUILD grants are critically important for communities and their economic vitality, and we urge DOT to continue to increase funding for public transportation projects.”

The funding also contained a nod to a contentious issue in U.S. infrastructure: increased border spending. Earlier this fall, the federal administration threatened to shut down the government if the Democrats didn't approve a bill that would allocate$5 billion toward a border wall. And, while a border wall might not be within BUILD's jurisdiction, the grant funding announcement nonetheless positioned the DOT as a champion of border security.

"Border security infrastructure is also supported through BUILD Transportation grants, with projects such as the Calexico East Port of Entry Bridge Expansion in California making bridge improvements to accommodate freight traffic and improving other transportation facilities at the border crossing," the DOT said in its announcement.

The project being referenced will add four additional northbound lanes to the bridge connecting Calexico, California, with Mexico: two northbound commercial truck lanes and two passenger vehicle lanes.According to the project's fact sheet, the project will also include digital systems for border data analysis and "enhance border security through the addition of barriers, cameras, and a security fence."

The Calexico East Port of Entry, originally built in 1996 to take pressure off the crowded Calexico West Port of Entry, has significant traffic. A BUILD-funded project to add four new lanes to the bridge hopes to alleviate some of the congestion.(Image courtesy of Weon L.)
The Calexico East Port of Entry, originally built in 1996 to take pressure off the crowded Calexico West Port of Entry, has significant traffic. A BUILD-funded project to add four new lanes to the bridge hopes to alleviate some of the congestion.(Image courtesy of Weon L.)

As per the new BUILD regulations, the grants also skewed heavily toward projects with other streams of revenue. Only one of the projects, a $7.99 million road rehabilitation project in Utah, has the BUILD project paying out the full amount necessary to complete the project (see BUILD project fact sheets). The remaining projects will be paid for by a loose coalition of BUILD grants, state government money and private corporation investment.

This approach is also in line with the federal administration's infrastructure plan. Last July, House Republicans unveiled a bill to privatize air traffic control. And, during this year's State of the Union speech, President Trump said that he planned to reduce the infrastructure investment backlog by “tapping into private-sector investment.”

What Next?

American infrastructure enthusiasts hope this bill will mark the beginning of an infrastructure renaissance.

It's a bright spot of hope in what has otherwise been a gloomy year. While Trump announced that he would pass a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill, his efforts have been plagued by questions about where the money will come from. In March, House Majority Leader Paul Ryan announced that the bill would have to be split up into five or six separate bills because of funding challenges.

So far, none of these bills have been put forward. But with a Democratic majority taking power in the House starting in January 2019, prominent Democrats have expressed hope for the possibility of a bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The DOT is also hopeful for the prospect of change. “Over the past month, it’s been frequently observed that infrastructure is a subject that’s especially ripe for bipartisan legislation,” said Chao in her statement on the subject. “This administration will continue to work with Congress to enhance existing infrastructure programs.”


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