The U.S. Dept. of Transportation has selected 20 projects—for highway, bridge, port and rail improvements—to share $856 million in the latest round of its highly competitive INFRA grant program. [View DOT fact sheets on each winning project here.]

The department picked the winners for this year’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America funding from a wide field. Announcing the 2019 selections on July 25 at DOT headquarters, Secretary Elaine Chao said that almost 200 applications were submitted, seeking a total of $9.8 billion.

The largest awards, $125 million, went to Alabama DOT to help finance construction of a new bridge for Interstate 10 over the Mobile River channel; and to Maryland DOT to increase the vertical clearance of the Howard Street rail tunnel in Baltimore, to permit more double-stack freight rail cars to pass through.

Those two were among 10 winners in the large-project classification, with a minimum project size in most states of $100 million and grants of at least $25 million.

Another 10 projects were selected in the small-project competition, receiving awards of $5 million or more. The largest small-project grant was $13.1 million to the South Dakota DOT, for a bridge replacement over the Missouri River in Pierre.

The grant program was established in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation, or FAST Act. In fact, the Obama administration, which was in office when the FAST Act was signed, dubbed the program FASTLANE grants, for the first awards, announced in 2016. That stood for a mouthful of a title: Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies

When the Trump administration took office, it renamed the program  INFRA. It also altered some of the selection criteria and has put more emphasis on projects in rural areas. The FAST Act mandated that at least 25% of the program’s annual award dollars go to rural projects but the Trump administration has gone far above that.

Chao noted that 54% of the dollars in the latest batch of INFRA grants went to  projects in rural areas, a 10 percentage point increase over the 2018 round’s rural share.

Supplement to Core Funding

State DOTs scored big in this year’s INFRA competition, winning eight of the 10 large-project grants and three of the 10 small-project grants.

Joung Lee, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials director of policy, said in an interview that states see INFRA grants as a supplement to the core highway funding, which accounts for more than 90% of total federal highway dollars and is distributed  to states by formula.

Nevertheless, INFRA is a desirable supplement. Lee, who attended the DOT event, says, "Given the [transportation infrastructure] investment backlog, you're going to look at anything that could be a possibility to help."

He notes that discretionary grant programs sometimes can make funding available and get projects underway more quickly than with formula funding—“if you’re able to win the award.”

The selections for the INFRA grants technically were DOT proposals. Congress has 60 days to reject any of DOT’s choices for the grants; otherwise they  become final after that point.

Although DOT made its announcement on July 25, senators and House members from the winning states or congressional districts released the news about their home-state projects several days earlier, after DOT had notified them of their decision.

GAO Report

The latest INFRA awards were announced a week after the Government Accountability Office released a report that found DOT’s review process for the grants “lacked consistency and transparency related to following up with applicants and evaluating applications.”

Specifically, GAO said DOT found that 97 applications lacked sufficient information for the department to determine whether a project was eligible for INFRA. The report said DOT asked 42 of those applicants for more information. But it added, “DOT did not sufficiently document why it followed up with certain applicants over others.”

In addition, GAO stated that DOT evaluated applications using “merit criteria’" such as promoting economic vitality, giving each project a score.

But the report said DOT staff forwarded to Chao information on all 165 projects that were statutorialy eligible for a possible award “regardless of how well they scored on the merit criteria.” It added, “In the end, DOT awarded some projects that did not address all of the criteria.”

GAO observed that issues it has raised about DOT discretionary grants are “long-standing,” and said that going back to 2011, it “has recommended actions to increase consistency and transparency.”

In a response included in the GAO report, DOT said it concurred with GAO’s recommendations, including communicating and documenting the reasons for asking certain INFRA applicants for more information and letting applicants know how it uses merit criteria through the selection process.