The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has chosen 26 projects, mainly for highway or bridge construction, to share $1.5 billion in grants for road or freight-related improvements that are important to a region or the nation overall.
The selections, which the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee disclosed on June 5, are the latest round of grants to help finance ”projects of national or regional significance” under the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST, Act. [View list of projects here.]
The choices for what the Trump administration has dubbed Infrastructure for Rebuilding America, or INFRA, grants, are U.S. DOT’s proposals for how to distribute the funds. Under the FAST Act, Congress has 60 days to make changes in the list before the grant awards become final.
The 26 projects are in 23 states—California, Colorado and Pennsylvania each had two winners, the other 20 states had one grant apiece. The list is evenly split between rural and urban projects.
The projects tend to be large—the FAST Act states that to qualify for the program, they generally should have total costs of $100 million or more. The legislation also sets the minimum grants at $25 million. Brian Deery, senior director of the Associated General Contractors of America highway and transportation division, says, “This is…another chunk of money that [state DOTs] can bundle up with other funding sources to get some of these bigger projects done.”
The largest proposed grant is $184.1 million to add express lanes to Georgia State Route 400 in the Atlanta area.
Next in size are a $160-million grant to reconstruct and widen I-94 in southeast Wisconsin; $147.3 million for improvements to I-95 and U.S. 70 in North Carolina; and $132 million for freight rail infrastructure upgrades in the Chicago area.
The fifth-largest grant is $97.9 million to reconstruct Mound Road in Macomb County, Michigan.
The grants don’t exclude smaller projects, however. The FAST Act does set aside 10% of the program’s annual funds for projects below $100 million. DOT’s list has six small projects.
State DOTs did well in the INFRA competition, submitting 18 of the 26 winning INFRA proposals. The American Association of State HIghway and Transportation Officials has supported formula-based highway funds, which account for the vast majority of the $40-billion-plus annual federal highway program, notes Joung Lee, AASHTO policy director.
But Lee acknowledges that discretionary grants, such as INFRA, can help with key projects that require a large initial investment. He adds, however, "We recognize that the discretionary grant programs in general tend to be more of a high-risk, high-reward approach, in that it does cost lot of money to put together applications, with very little certainty that you're going to get something out of it."
Lee says that state DOTs "can't really rely on [discretionary grants] for your long-term capital planning purposes—which is the hallmark benefit of the formula-based approach."
The new roster of proposed grantees reflects the Trump administration’s emphasis on rural infrastructure. The list provides $673 million, or about 44% of the $1.5 billion total, for non-urban projects. That far exceeds the FAST Act requirement that at least 25% of the annual dollars should go to locales outside regions with populations greater than 200,000.
INFRA is a new name, which the Trump administration coined, for the grants. The Obama administration, which picked the program’s initial round of grants in 2016, called them Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies, or FASTLANE, grants.
Besides renaming the program, the Trump administration last year changed some grant selection criteria, including putting an emphasis on applicants’ being able to leverage the federal grant dollars with state, local or private funds.
“There’s a lot of nonfederal money in these projects,” Deery notes. Many have nonfederal shares well above the FAST Act’s 20% minimum.
That statute authorized $4.5 billion for the grant program over five years, subject to annual appropriations. The latest round combines about $700 million in 2017 funds and $800 from 2018. the 2019 authorization is $950 million.
Story updated on 6/11/2018 with more precise number for rural projects' share of total grant dollars.