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A new opinion piece in the Washington Post takes a contrarian view of all the talk about money during Infrastructure Week. Let’s skip the infrastructure plan and focus on policy, because without good policy more spending could actually do more harm than good.

Yesterday, Repair Priorities 2019 showed how America desperately needs to change federal transportation policy that allows states to neglect their repair needs in favor of costly road expansions.

Today, a new piece in the Washington Post from Transportation for America Director Beth Osborne makes that clear with some pointed language:

At best, this infrastructure plan would throw more money into the same flawed system. At worst, Congress and the president would be signing a blank check with no sense of what the money is intended to accomplish, no clear system for accountability, no requirements for states to actually repair our “crumbling roads and bridges” and no guarantees that any of us would have an easier time getting from A to B when all that money has been spent.

What we need from Congress is an update to federal transportation policy for the next six years, which governs how we spend some $61 billion annually on highways and transit programs. And we need lawmakers to find more than $13 billion a year to cover shrinking gas-tax revenue.

 

Agencies competing for limited federal funds to expand transit must prove they can also cover long-term maintenance and operations, something no road project ever has to do. When state highway departments can’t cover their commitments because they’ve prioritized expansion over repair, they’ll just ask for more money.

After all, there will always be another Infrastructure Week.

While decision makers are focused on infrastructure this week, so are we. Read the full op-ed  and then share Beth’s message with your networks on Twitter and/or Facebook to help us spread the word!

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It’s infrastructure Week again and politicians are back at it, bemoaning our “crumbling roads and bridges” and insisting we must spend more to fix the problem. But we’ve got some cold water to throw on this pity party: Despite more transportation spending over the last decade, the percentage of the roads nationwide in “poor condition” increased from 14 to 20 percent.

That’s the headline from our new report—Repair Priorities 2019—which finds that states are neglecting repair and routine maintenance in favor of costly expansions and widenings. Even when given more flexibility by Congress to spend money as they see fit, states, on average, spent as much money expanding their road networks ($21.3 billion) as they did repairing their existing roads ($21.4 billion) each year.

In short, our infrastructure issues are more of a policy problem than a money problem.

As T4America Director Beth Osborne said in our release today, “While a handful of states are doing an admirable job putting their money where their mouth is by devoting the bulk of their federal dollars to repair, many other states are spending vastly more on expanding their roads or building new ones—creating new liabilities in the process—even as their existing system falls into disrepair.”

Download Repair Priorities for a state-by-state look at how states are spending their money and what it will take to fix the system. Then join us for awebinar on Wednesday May 15 at 3 p.m. ET/12 p.m. PT to hear from two state DOT officials about the findings.

Putting the (money) cart before the horse

Two trillion is the hottest number in Washington right now—it’s how much money politicians want to pump into a yet-to-be-fleshed-out infrastructure plan. Although they haven’t yet articulated what all that extra spending will actually achieve or how this money will be spent more responsibly than the hundreds of billions we spent over the last decade, they already know the price tag.

We need to #BuildForTomorrow, they say. We have a question: Build WHAT for tomorrow?

The scope of our vision and ambition should determine how much money we need to spend on infrastructure. And that vision should then be supported with thoughtful policy—not a blank check—that will make sure we achieve our goals.

Getting back on track

So what might thoughtful policy look like? For starters, we should give taxpayers an idea of what they’re paying for with clear, measurable outcomes—do we want to cut the number of roads in poor condition in half over the next six years? Reduce traffic fatalities by 60 percent? Decrease emissions by 70 percent? Define the vision and set some measurable goals first.

We could require states to use available federal funding—billions of dollars they’re given automatically every year—to fix the system before expanding it. We could establish a competitive funding program for new road capacity that requires a higher standard for asset management—just like we do for transit. We could require more frequent and diligent reporting so that taxpayers can hold their officials accountable.

What do all these ideas have in common? They’re about policy not money. Whether it’s a stand-alone infrastructure bill or our existing federal transportation program, policy is the key to fixing America’s infrastructure problem. It’s about time the policy makers took that to heart.

Download Repair Priorities 2019
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Report comes as the White House and congressional leaders continue discussing a $2 trillion infrastructure package that could exacerbate the problem

WASHINGTON, DCRepair Priorities 2019, a new report released today by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense,  shows that, despite more spending, the percentage of the roads nationwide in “poor condition” increased from 14 percent to 20 percent and 37 states saw the percentage of their roads in poor condition increase from 2009-2017.

This is happening because states are neglecting basic repair in favor of expanding their roads. Given increasing spending flexibility by Congress over the last two long-term transportation reauthorizations, states spent nearly as much money expanding their road networks as they did repairing their existing roads ($120 billion spent building new lane-miles from 2009 to 2014).

“Whether during debate over an infrastructure bill or the long-term reauthorization looming next year, the rhetoric I hear over and over again from Capitol Hill and the White House about the need to invest more money in transportation is all about ‘repairing our crumbling roads and bridges.’ But our spending priorities rarely match this oft-repeated rhetoric,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America.

“A look at the numbers from the Federal Highway Administration in Repair Priorities makes it clear that we can scarcely afford to maintain the roads we have, let alone the new roads we keep adding to the system. While a handful of states are doing an admirable job putting their money where their mouth is by devoting the bulk of their federal dollars to repair, many other states are spending vastly more on expanding their roads or building new ones— creating new liabilities in the process—even as their existing system falls into disrepair.”

“Lawmakers and officials like a good ribbon cutting at a new road, but repair is too often treated like flossing teeth: A tedious, sometimes painful extra step that’s all too easily skipped. Except that it’s critical and saves taxpayers cash and pain down the road,” said Steve Ellis, executive vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. “Instead of sending blank checks to the states, federal taxpayers deserve to have some assurances that their tax dollars will be spent effectively and efficiently on the highest priority projects, which in most cases is taking care of what we already have.”

It’s unclear if we could even afford to maintain all the roads that we’ve built, even if we devoted all available capital dollars toward repair. Repair Priorities estimates that we would need to spend more than $231 billion per year just to keep our existing road network in acceptable repair and bring the backlog of roads in poor condition into good repair over a six-year period (the typical length of a federal transportation reauthorization).  By comparison, all highway capital expenditures across all government units in 2015 totaled just $105.4 billion, only a portion of which goes to repair.

The latest available data shows states have made some improvement in their spending since the first edition of Repair Priorities in 2011, but states are still spending just as much on road expansion as road repair. States spent $21.4 billion on average on road repair annually between 2009-2014 and $21.3 billion annually on road expansion.

When states devote money to expanding their roads, it doesn’t just redirect funds away from repair and maintenance; it also continually expands our overall annual spending need. We built enough new lane miles from 2009-2017 to criss-cross the width of America 83 times, requiring an additional $5 billion per year just to keep those new roads in good condition. That’s more than Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas receive combined in federal highway apportionments every single year.

So what will it take to fix the system?  Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense provide four concrete recommendations for Congress to consider in any infrastructure package they consider, including the upcoming 2020 federal transportation bill. Congress should: guarantee measurable outcomes for American taxpayers with any new funding, require that states repair their existing systems before expanding, require project sponsors to demonstrate that they can afford to maintain new roadway capacity projects, and track progress and require that FHWA publish results.

Repair Priorities 2019 provides a national snapshot and state-by-state evaluation of current roadway pavement conditions, spending trends, and unmet needs. It also recommends crucial actions federal policymakers should take in the next transportation reauthorization bill to get the nation’s roads—and spending priorities—back on track.

The full report and state-by-state findings are available at http://t4america.org/maps-tools/repair-priorities

###

Transportation for America, a program of Smart Growth America, is an alliance of elected, business, and civic leaders from communities across the country, united to ensure that states and the federal government step up to invest in smart, homegrown, locally-driven transportation solutions. These are the investments that hold the key to our future economic prosperity.

Smart Growth America envisions a country where no matter where you live, or who you are, you can enjoy living in a place that is healthy, prosperous, and resilient. We empower communities through technical assistance, advocacy, and thought leadership to realize our vision of livable places, healthy people, and shared prosperity.

Taxpayers for Common Sense is an independent, nonpartisan voice for taxpayers working to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly and that government operates within its means.

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After two solid years of everyone in Washington, DC talking nonstop about a standalone infrastructure bill to pump trillions into America’s infrastructure, we’d understand if you weren’t aware that the last Infrastructure Week ever ended.

If you haven’t seen the evidence in your inbox already, the incessant drumbeat for more money is already underway today. All this week, you’ll hear the usual interest groups starting this conversation by talking about nothing but money:

Why are they telling us the price before they’ve told us what we’re buying?

We think that this is backwards, and our Repair Priorities 2019 report, launching tomorrow, will help show why. Even as we gave states more than $300 billion to spend almost however they wanted to—in addition to billions more in the 2009 stimulus—the condition of our nation’s roads actually got worse from 2009-2017. Thirty-seven states saw an increase of roads in “poor” condition.

Our roads got worse not because we lacked money, but because too many states spent that money on building or expanding new roads rather than being good stewards by prioritizing repair. We built enough new lane-miles during that period to criss-cross the country 83 times, roads that will cost us $5 billion more per year just to maintain in good condition.

This is more than a money problem—it’s a priorities problem.

Congress has to stop asking taxpayers for more funding to fix crumbling roads and bridges without providing concrete, measurable assurances that any new money will actually improve things.

The public deserves to know first what more money is going to buy us—not just how much money they “need.” Congress’ decisions over the last two decades has just led to a lack of transportation options, more inequality, and more and bigger roads filled with more traffic and more pollution.

If you think we need to fix our spending priorities before we even think about pouring more money into this broken system, then bypass the Infrastructure Week rhetoric and share our social media message for Monday instead:

Today is the 1st day of #InfrastructureWeek. Why in the world would we give more money to the same people who have been neglecting basic maintenance in order to build more things we can’t afford to maintain? #BuildWHATForTomorrow?”

Repair Priorities 2019 is being released tomorrow. Sign up for Wednesday’s 3:00 p.m. EDT webinar examining the findings now.

REGISTER NOW

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New roads are often considered new assets, but by ignoring repair many states have let those assets become liabilities—as our upcoming Repair Priorities report shows.

Building new infrastructure is sexy—it’s a tangible sign of progress and officials get to cut ribbons. Policymakers often talk about new roads as economic “assets,” but they are more truthfully classified as liabilities, bringing decades of baked-in maintenance costs. Without a regular commitment to upkeep, these liabilities can break the bank.

As Repair Priorities 2019 will show next week, we have a lot of liabilities on our hands.

Look for the full report in your inbox on Tuesday, May 14. Then join us for a webinar on Wednesday, May 15 where we’ll dig into how states are spending their existing money, hear directly from a number of state DOT officials, and discuss our recommendations for fixing this looming financial crisis.

Register for the webinar

Not all states are in the same situation. Many states make responsible decisions to invest the majority of their money in repair. Other states are borderline irresponsible, spending vastly more on expanding new roads—and creating new liabilities—even as their existing system falls into disrepair. Much of this money comes directly from the federal government with little to no direction about how those funds should be spent.

In the midst of ongoing talk about a purported infrastructure plan—notably, all the talk is about funding levels, not what we want it to actually accomplish—and as Congress begins crafting a long-term replacement for the expiring FAST Act, Repair Priorities will be a wake up call.

More funding won’t fix our infrastructure problem without a serious change in priorities.

Register for the webinar next Wednesday at 3 p.m. ET/12 p.m. PT.

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While politicians are focused on how much more funding we should give to infrastructure, our upcoming report sheds light on how states are using existing funding for repair vs. new roads and how policy can get the nation back on track.

Earlier this week, President Trump, House Speaker Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Schumer met to discuss funding levels for a yet undefined infrastructure plan.

We don’t know what the plan will fund or build, what problems it’s trying to solve, or how we will measure its success—if at all—but politicians have somehow already settled on a $2 trillion price tag.

This is the standard practice on Capitol Hill when it comes to infrastructure, and we believe it’s time for a change.

Much of the rhetoric around this mythical infrastructure plan has focused on “repairing our crumbling roads and bridges.” But if past decisions are the best predictor of future behavior then much of any extra transportation spending will likely be squandered on building and expanding roads rather than repairing them—as we show in our forthcoming report, Repair Priorities 2019.

Repair Priorities 2019 will be released during Infrastructure Week on Tuesday, May 14. Join us for a webinar on Wednesday, May 15 at 3 p.m. ET for a closer look at the findings.

Register for the webinar

Despite the growing maintenance backlog, states have continued to spend a significant portion of funding to build new roads. Repair Priorities 2019 provides a national snapshot and state-by-state evaluation of current roadway pavement conditions, spending trends, and unmet needs. It also recommends crucial actions federal policymakers should take in the next transportation reauthorization bill to get the nation’s roads—and spending priorities—back on track.

As we have said repeatedly, when it comes to infrastructure we don’t have funding problem, we have a policy problem. But policy makers are still putting the cart before the horse, jumping straight to how much of our money they need before telling us why or what we’re going to get for it in the end. Repair Priorities will help make the case for policy change using the government’s own data.

Register for the webinar on Wednesday, May 15 at 3 p.m. ET.

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The third and final part of our analysis of 10 years of awarding transportation funds competitively through the TIGER/BUILD program illuminates three simple principles that should help guide reform of the federal transportation system.


Read the first two posts in the series (part one, part two) or download the full analysis.

The federal transportation program is in need of a major overhaul. America today is very different than the America of the 1920s. The interstate highway system as envisioned is now complete, new technology is changing the way people move almost daily, there is far greater awareness of the social impacts of car-focused transportation, and climate change is an urgent threat and transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

But the most glaring shortcoming is the total absence of a broader vision of what today’s program should accomplish tomorrow. While Congress has made small tweaks here and there over last few decades, the program as a whole largely fails to meet the needs of the modern day and the basic goal of the program is not clear. Its initial purpose was to build out the interstate system but that has been completed. What now? Is the purpose to keep the current system in a state of good repair? Reduce fatalities on our roadways by half? Ensure that Americans have access to the majority of regional jobs by car and transit?

If we can’t answer these questions of vision, goals, or purpose—if we don’t know why we are spending billions of dollars—it is hard to believe we will accomplish much of anything. Yet Congress is poised to come back to taxpayers and ask for more money, just to accomplish more of the same.

How can this 10-year experiment with awarding a small slice of federal transportation funds competitively to the best possible projects across a range of modes help guide the debate over how to reform the federal transportation program at large? As lawmakers move toward reauthorizing the long-term federal transportation law in 2020, here are three lessons we’ve learned from 10 years of TIGER/BUILD that we could apply to the broader federal program.

Competition for limited funds results in better projects

Competition for funding helps improve projects. The introduction of a flexible, competitive program has pushed applicants to go further, to dream big, collaborate effectively, and design better projects that meet a community’s needs. There are a handful of projects that failed to win funding in one year and came back in another with a stronger application and a recalibrated project and won funding. The BUILD program proves what’s possible when we focus on funding the best possible projects instead of relying on blind formulas to dispense money automatically.

Make funds directly available to local communities

Local governments are generally more in tune with community needs and the land-use implications of transportation projects than statewide entities. The BUILD program has given locals a much needed source of direct federal funding that should be emulated in the broader federal transportation program.

As our colleagues at Smart Growth America have shown, most state departments of transportation (DOTs) were initially created solely to build highways and have that DNA embedded deep in their culture and practice. And they don’t always share the same priorities of their local communities when it comes to choosing how to disburse the funding. Giving locals more of a say with how funds should be spent within their borders results in a transportation system that’s far more responsive to the real needs at a local level.

Incentivize transportation choice

The modern federal transportation program was designed to build the interstate highway system. Today, that system is complete but like a ship with a stuck rudder, federal policy lacks clear new direction and continues to focus primarily on doing the same thing: building roads. The result is a national transportation system that is heavily skewed toward private vehicle travel, often jeopardizing the safety of people walking, biking, and taking transit. But 10 years of BUILD have shown that there is great demand for multimodal infrastructure.

There’s no reason that the federal government should pay for a greater share of a road project than that of a transit project. Federal policy currently stipulates an 80 percent share for roads but a much lower amount for transit—usually around 50 percent. And when it comes to overall funding levels, again, there is no reason we should we should prioritize roads over other transportation options. If anything, transit projects should be prioritized in light of the great demand for more transportation choices, rising inequality, and climate change. The federal program should create more parity between the modes in terms of federal match and the overall funding levels.

Congress has a vital role in BUILD’s future

The greatest strengths of this program have always been found in the numerous ways it is different from other federal transportation funding programs. Over the past decade it has funded numerous projects that have stimulated investment in communities big and small across the country, many of which would have never happened without it. It hypothesized and tested a new model of funding smart projects: funds given directly, allowing more flexibility and innovation in approach, and encouraging teams of multiple partners on complex projects.

Normal Leads the Tiger Pack - YouTube

While the program still has the potential to continue to fund great projects, it will only do so if Congress stays diligent and ensures that USDOT executes the program as intended.

TIGER is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a roads program, a rural funding program, or just another vehicle for funneling more money without any accountability to state DOTs. It is wildly popular because it is multimodal, advances projects in urban and rural communities alike, funds projects that don’t easily fit in today’s narrowly defined federal funding silos, and is open to any public entity.

We should keep it that way.

Download the full analysis here

Sean Doyle was the primary author of this report for Transportation for America, with contributions from Beth Osborne, Scott Goldstein, Jordan Chafetz, and Stephen Lee Davis.

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A deceptive announcement by USDOT two weeks ago resulted in mistaken headlines across the country giving credit to USDOT and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) for “awarding” funding to a number of transit projects. A closer read reveals that USDOT didn’t actually distribute or award a single dime to advance new transit projects.

In a self-congratulatory press release on April 9, USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao touted the agency’s efforts to “strengthen our country’s transit infrastructure and improve mobility” and “announced a total of $1.36 billion in federal funding allocations to 16 new and existing transit projects.” [italics ours]

In reality, no dollars for new transit projects were awarded or obligated. No new grant agreements were signed to allow projects to proceed. No new shovel-ready transit projects got a check in the mail from FTA. Why is that? Because FTA is just announcing “funding allocations.”

A “funding allocation” is just fancy language for an internal plan to award money…eventually

Here’s a way to understand “funding allocations.” Let’s say you’re planning to buy a new roof for your house. To prepare, you “allocate” some money to yourself by moving it from your savings account into your checking account so that when the time comes, you can cut a roofer a check. But you still haven’t actually hired a roofer, written them a check, and you certainly haven’t started replacing your roof yet. Should the roofer you haven’t yet hired be celebrating?

In other words, USDOT put out a press release that’s mostly about them moving some numbers around on a spreadsheet and posting it on their website. Congrats? It’s an extraordinary display of verbal gymnastics by USDOT to make it appear that they’re doing much more to fund transit than they actually are—notably released just the day before Secretary Chao testified before the House Appropriations Committee about USDOT’s budget.

And they are succeeding at misleading the public— look no further than the resulting media coverage thus far.

Want to know what’s actually happening with federal transit funding? See Stuck in the Station >>

But this press release has—perhaps inadvertently—also helped illuminate some troubling developments from an agency that has become much less transparent under the Trump administration. Here are five things we found:

1) USDOT wildly overstates how much money they’ve spent

The press release says, “with this announcement, FTA has advanced funding for 22 new [transit Capital Investment Grant] projects throughout the nation under this administration since January 20, 2017, totaling approximately $5.06 billion in funding commitments.”

In fact, FTA has only actually spent a fraction of that $5.06 billion, and if you define advancing funding as actually awarding (i.e., spending) it, FTA has only advanced 10 new projects with money from 2017 or later, far short of the 22 as they claim.

They take credit for providing more than $3.3 billion to 13 ongoing projects (including the canceled Wave streetcar in Ft. Lauderdale, more on that later), three of which are multi-year projects. Though FTA is legally required to continue funding such multi-year projects under binding “full funding grant agreements,” those transit projects have not yet received the full amount. And FTA is also counting more than $1.7 billion in funding for nine projects that they have not actually signed agreements to fund or advance.

2) USDOT is claiming progress by allocating more FY 2018 funding to two projects that already received 2018 funding

At first glance this sounds like good news: Two large-scale projects with grant agreements that were signed during the Obama administration will get an extra dose of money to perhaps speed them along. The Peninsula Corridor Electrification Project in San Carlos, CA and the Red and Purple Modernization Project in Chicago, IL are scheduled to receive an extra $100 million dollars each on top of the $100 million FTA had previously allocated to each project this year. That’s $200 million each for the 2018 fiscal year.

This is highly unusual, and it could also be a way for USDOT to do an end-around of requirements from Congress. FTA usually allocates no more than $100 million to a single project in a given year. The fact that FTA is doubling up on 2018 dollars is most interesting in light of new requirements that Congress imposed requiring USDOT to spend at least 80 percent of their FY 2018 funding by the end of this calendar year. Stuck in the Station now tracks USDOT progress towards that benchmark.

Double dipping in 2018 funds to expedite funding for existing projects allows USDOT to come closer to meeting Congress’ requirements without actually funding any new transit projects.

3) No new projects are being funded

The major development at first glance is that FTA is “allocating” money to five new transit projects. But none of these projects were actually approved or awarded money, even though local media fell for FTA’s misdirection. These five projects will join four other projects that FTA announced “allocations” for months ago. None of these nine “allocated” projects have a funding agreement in place yet, nor are we aware of FTA notifying Congress of their intent to sign any grant agreements (which is legally required).

4) USDOT wants credit for allocating money to a canceled project

The Wave streetcar in Fort Lauderdale is an unfortunate story. It was set to receive $60.66 million from USDOT in October of 2017 but local politics intervened at the last second and torpedoed the project. The streetcar was canceled and no federal money was spent. But FTA still claims credit for allocating that $60.66 million to the now defunct project and counts The Wave as one of the 13 projects they’ve advanced.

5) Minneapolis is left in limbo, and Los Angeles is still awaiting a final guarantee of funding

Late last year, FTA made news by sending what’s known as a letter of no prejudice to both Los Angeles and Minneapolis for their Purple Line and Green Line extensions, respectively. Such letters don’t guarantee future funding but they are generally seen as an implicit approval giving localities permission to begin work on a project with their own money.

Los Angeles’ Purple Line extension is included in the list of nine future projects that FTA anticipates funding (but still hasn’t yet). But Minneapolis’ Green Line extension is notably absent from this list, even though they have the same letter as LA. This could just be an egregious error on the part of the agency, but it’s more likely that FTA has no intention of signing a grant agreement with Minneapolis this year.

Delay, mislead, misdirect

FTA chose its words very carefully in this press release. They never say that they’re “funding” or “approving” new projects. They use the words “allocation” and “advancing” repeatedly. While all of this makes it sound like they’re spending lots of money and advancing lots of projects, that’s simply not true. Stuck in the Station tracks how much funding has been actually obligated to new transit projects, which projects are currently eligible and waiting for funding, and how close USDOT is to meeting congressional requirements for its 2018 funding.

USDOT is still working diligently to hinder predictable and stable federal funding for transit. We’ll keep holding them accountable. When USDOT finally moves beyond creating new spreadsheets and does advance new projects, we’ll be the first to commend them for it. But for now, it appears that USDOT is more interested in looking like it’s doing its job than actually doing its job.

View Stuck in the Station

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Under President Trump, USDOT has hijacked the TIGER/BUILD competitive grant program, taking it far from its intended function. After a decade of experience with the program there are a number of simple steps that lawmakers could take to get it back on track and even improve it.


This is the second post in a series about the BUILD program. Learn more about the Trump administration’s dramatic changes to the BUILD program in the first post >> 

The BUILD program’s greatest strengths lie in its differences from other federal transportation funding programs, which should be reinforced, rather than diminished in order to award funding to the same kind of projects as core federal transportation programs. BUILD has the potential to continue to fund great projects only if Congress stays diligent and ensures that USDOT executes the program as intended. BUILD is not a roads program, it is not a rural funding program, and it is not another vehicle for funneling more money without any accountability to state DOTs.

Recommendations to improve BUILD 1. Eliminate the $25 million cap on awards.

Even though the program is now larger (average of $967 million during the Trump administration) than it was in most years of the Obama administration ($596 million per year on average), the most recent appropriations bill included a $25 million cap on BUILD grant awards. This has the unintended consequence of making it more difficult to advance innovative, multimodal, and far more transformative or nationally significant projects. For such projects, $25 million simply isn’t enough.1

The maximum award of $25 million was an informal practice established by USDOT early on when the program was funded at substantially lower levels, in order to help them equitably distribute a small amount of funds across the country, as mandated by Congress. However, with Congress providing larger amounts of funding for BUILD, this unnecessary cap serves only to limit the program’s ability to support larger projects that also bring more benefits.

2. Award planning grants, particularly for transit-oriented development and transit projects.

While recent appropriations bills have made planning grants eligible for funding, no such grants have been awarded. Many local communities desire investments in transit, transit-oriented development, and other multimodal infrastructure, but lack the resources or expertise to adequately plan for such investments.

Congress authorized planning grants within TIGER/BUILD four times—in 2010, 2014, 2018, and again in 2019, and USDOT awarded a combined 64 planning grants in 2010 and 2014. These grants helped local communities advance projects that were ultimately funded by a subsequent TIGER/BUILD construction grant, or other sources. For example, the 2014 funding of the San Francisco Bay Area Core Capacity Transit Study helped enable the advancement of the Transbay Corridor Core Capacity project in the federal transit capital program. In Indiana, another 2014 planning grant helped locals to advance the Red Line BRT project which also successfully received funds from the transit capital program and is currently under construction.

Innovative projects can struggle to get off the ground because transportation agencies can be hesitant to spend money on planning a project if there isn’t going to be any funding available to build it. But a program like BUILD can’t cover the capital costs of a project if no basic planning has been done. That’s why these BUILD planning funds are so important. USDOT should use its authority to make planning awards where appropriate, and Congress should also encourage USDOT to use this authority as well.

3. Strengthen requirements for modal parity.

This administration has made a dramatic shift to use the BUILD program to fund traditional road projects which can already be easily funded without restriction through a variety of conventional federal programs. This misuse of the program should prompt Congress to strengthen requirements to allocate funding to multimodal projects, including transit and passenger rail. Alternatively, Congress should consider dedicating more trust fund money to these modes if BUILD funding is not going to be made available to them.

4. Require a more equitable urban/rural funding split.

Congress should make clear that a more equitable urban-rural split is appropriate and provide more clear guidance to USDOT about how they are expected to consider the needs of both urban and rural America. Currently, USDOT awards grants to either urban or rural projects, with a set-aside for rural projects. This creates a false choice between the two.

For example, the CREATE project in Illinois, which will relieve freight rail bottlenecks and allow goods to more easily move to market through the country, is considered an “urban” project. This, despite the fact that about 25 percent of rail traffic in the United States travels through the Chicago region, and farmers and businesses from rural areas will benefit from reduced freight congestion. The benefits of an urban or rural project are not limited only to the jurisdiction where construction will take place. USDOT should consider the full impact of a project, on both urban and rural areas when determining a projects classification.

5. Authorize the BUILD program in long-term transportation policy.

The TIGER/BUILD program stands out as the only major federal transportation program that has not been authorized by the FAST Act and previous authorizing legislation, leaving its fate in limbo each year. While Congress has continued to fund it through the annual appropriations process, authorizing the program over multiple years at $1.5 billion annually would provide some certainty to potential applicants and allow Congress to establish more policy guardrails to ensure it operates as intended.

Many of these recommendations currently have support in Congress. In particular, 20 members of Congress recently signed a letter led by Representative Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11) to USDOT expressing concern about how they have been facilitating the BUILD program. That letter endorsed some of these recommendations.

The BUILD program has long been a bipartisan winner because it is so flexible. It gives communities a unique opportunity (and in some cases the only opportunity) to win direct federal assistance for a priority transportation project that would otherwise be hard or impossible to fund. However, the dramatic shift in focus underway at USDOT seriously undermines the utility of the program by directing dollars away from innovative, multimodal projects and instead heavily favoring conventional road projects that can already be more easily funded.

The recommendations above will help Congress keep TIGER roaring (or BUILD building) as the program enters its second decade.

Up next later this week, lessons from the past 10 years of TIGER/BUILD that should inform federal transportation policy at large.

Sean Doyle was the primary author of this report for Transportation for America, with contributions from Beth Osborne, Scott Goldstein, Jordan Chafetz, and Stephen Lee Davis.

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Under President Trump, the U.S. Department of Transportation has effectively turned the formerly innovative BUILD program—created to advance complex, hard-to-fund projects—into little more than a rural roads program, dramatically undercutting both its intent and utility.

Following this week’s announcement of an 11th round in BUILD competitive grants ($900 million) available to almost any public entity for transportation projects, Transportation for America is releasing this new comparative and constructive critique of USDOT’s BUILD program (formerly known as TIGER) in three parts. Up first today, what we found after examining ten years of awards.

The Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program has been one of the most popular and impactful transportation programs in the federal arsenal. Conceived during the first few months of the Obama administration at the height of the financial crisis in 2009, the program originally bore the name TIGER: Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery.

This unique program was powerful precisely because of how it differed from most other federal transportation programs.

The program is uniquely popular because of its flexibility.
Funds can be awarded to any public entity—like a city government, public university, or tribal government—and can fund almost any kind of transportation project—roads, bridges, transit, freight, ports, bike, pedestrian, or any combination—in a wide variety of contexts. Given that most federal transportation programs award funding to state DOTs and restrict funding to one particular mode, the BUILD program has provided a much needed avenue for local entities to finance multimodal or complicated projects that cross numerous jurisdictional lines.

The program’s competition resulted in projects with greater benefits.
Unlike nearly all federal transportation dollars that are awarded automatically by formulas based on population, lane-miles, or other simple criteria, USDOT receives, scores, and awards BUILD funding based on the extent to which projects improve safety, state of repair, economic competitiveness, quality of life, and environmental sustainability. If you have a great project that’s multimodal, crosses city lines, and includes multiple partners, BUILD is an opportunity to fund it—and often the only way to do so with direct federal resources. Over the 10 rounds of the program so far, USDOT received more than 8,443 applications from all 50 states and U.S. territories requesting more than $156 billion in funding.1

The program encouraged more non-federal investment in transportation.
Since 2009, the program has awarded nearly $7.1 billion to 554 projects across the nation, leveraging billions more in non-BUILD funding. Over the first eight rounds, on average, projects attracted more than 3.6 additional, non-federal dollars for every TIGER grant dollar.

The focus has shifted since the Trump administration took over the program

A program which once heavily funded multimodal, transformative projects of regional and national significance which would otherwise be difficult to fund is now focused on expanding road capacity with an extreme bias for projects in rural areas. By comparing the projects selected for funding over the last 10 years and their level of funding, we identified four dramatic shifts in the program.

More roads, less multimodal

In the two most recent rounds of TIGER/BUILD awards—the first two years the program was managed by the Trump administration—only about 10 percent of funding went to transit projects. This is a big departure from the previous eight years when transit projects received between 28 and 40 percent of funding. Conversely, the share of funding dedicated to traditional road projects has grown to all-time highs; in 2018, road projects—most of which are eligible to receive normal formula dollars from their state—received more than 60 percent of the funding for the first time, after hovering below 30 percent for years.

While the name of the program may have been changed to BUILD in 2018, the congressional intent did not change. The small amount of funding for multimodal projects is inconsistent with the law which directs USDOT to invest “in a variety of transportation modes.”2 TIGER was created in part because most federal transportation dollars are already focused on roads via the highway formulas.

If a road project didn’t rank high enough to be funded from a state’s share of the $42 billion guaranteed to be spent annually from the Highway Trust Fund, it likely isn’t essential and shouldn’t displace other more creative projects that can’t be funded through conventional federal transportation programs.

More capacity, less repair

A closer look at the road projects selected over the years shows that the Trump administration has focused more heavily on capacity expansion (i.e. new roads and road widenings) versus repair and bridge replacement. The first year of BUILD (round X) set two records: not only was a record share of total funding devoted to roads, a record percentage of that funding (70 percent) was dedicated to capacity expansion.

Note: this graphic only includes projects that were categorized as “roads” in the first graphic above. It does not include complete streets projects.

While policymakers of all stripes echo the constant refrain of “repairing our crumbling roads and bridges,” the Trump administration has prioritized doing the exact opposite with the BUILD program, largely opting to build new infrastructure (increasing the amount of infrastructure that needs to be maintained) rather than focusing on caring for our existing assets.

More rural, less urban

The past two of years of awards have disproportionately favored rural areas. While rural areas certainly deserve transportation investments, they should be proportional. The U.S. Census Bureau found that in 2016, approximately 19 percent of Americans lived in rural areas while 81 percent of Americans lived in urban areas.3 Reflecting where most Americans live, during the first eight years of the TIGER program (2009-2016) projects in urban areas received, on average, 75 percent of funding. Yet in the past two rounds of the program, projects in urban areas have only received an average of 33 percent of funding.

When providing BUILD funding in the last two appropriation bills, Congress directed USDOT to fund projects in rural and urban areas “to ensure an equitable geographic distribution of funds.”4 Disproportionately awarding grants to projects in rural areas is hardly equitable and is inconsistent with the intent and letter of the law.

Critics often complained during the earlier years of the program that it was too urban-focused based solely on the location of the chosen projects. However, many projects classified as urban were actually projects of national significance that have great utility and benefits for rural areas. For example, Port of New Orleans Rail Yard Improvements were funded during TIGER II “to reduce congestion, facilitate the movement of marine and rail cargo, stimulate international commerce, and maintain an essential port.” This project brings immense benefits for the city, the rural areas around it, and the country even though it was classified as an “urban project.” It creates jobs in New Orleans at the port and moves exports like poultry, paper, and pulp to market, a critical need for farmers and manufacturers across the country.

While the Trump administration has made investment in rural communities a key talking point, USDOT’s project selection reflects a very narrow and overly simplistic understanding of what can actually help those communities. Projects that get goods from rural America to market are left off the table just because they might be located in an urban area.

A new rail flyover at 63rd and State in Chicago that eliminated an at-grade crossing. TIGER I provided $100 million to a package of rail infrastructure projects in the Chicago region known as CREATE. While classified as an urban project, CREATE is addressing a series of bottlenecks that result in passenger delays in Chicago and freight delays throughout the country, bringing benefits to urban and rural communities alike across the region, state, and country. Photo by Mark Llanuza.

More funding for state DOTs, less for anyone else

One of the greatest strengths of the BUILD program is that it’s one of the few ways for local governments (or any public entity) to directly receive transportation funding from the federal government to advance their own priority projects, without having to go hat-in-hand to the state. If a municipality or public transit agency conceives of a great project that ticks the required boxes under the law—and if they can identify a local matching contribution—BUILD funding is an option.

Most other federal transportation funds are directed to and controlled by state DOTs. (A smaller share goes to regional metropolitan planning organizations.) As most mayors or other local elected leaders know from firsthand experience, a state DOT’s priorities for spending within their community’s borders are often not the same.

Under the Trump administration, more funds have been going to state DOTs—an average of 37.5 percent awarded to state DOTs compared to 28 percent under the Obama administration.5

Up next

Coming early next week, our recommendations for re-BUILDing the program. Want to get updates on reports like this? Sign up for email from T4America.

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Sean Doyle was the primary author of this report for Transportation for America, with contributions from Beth Osborne, Scott Goldstein and Stephen Lee Davis.

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