photo: Interstate 70 near Odessa, Mo.
Road work ahead. Charlie Riedel/AP

Under Trump, an Obama-era transportation grant program designed to fund innovative multi-modal projects became a rural highway-building machine.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has set transit-watchers up in arms after releasing the latest recipients of $880 million worth of federal grants. In a tweet, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Rachel Swan showed a table by Eno Transportation Weekly comparing dollar commitments made to various transportation modes under a DOT discretionary grant program.

The comparison between grant recipients under the two administrations offered a striking distillation of current federal transportation priorities: Trump’s DOT reduced its commitments to mass transit and rail improvements, zeroed out bike and pedestrian projects, and doubled the share of dollars handed to roads, roads, and more roads to the tune $603 million (68 percent of the FY2019 spending).

Transit Twitter was disappointed, but not surprised. Streetsblog alum Angie Schmitt wrote, “[Zero percent] for bikes and pedestrians amid growing safety crisis for only those modes. These things are connected.” Doug Gordon, co-host of The War on Cars podcast, tweeted, “This is climate change denial.”

It sure looked like a particularly egregious example of the current administration’s contempt for all things urban and environmentally responsible. But what, exactly, were we getting all bent out of shape about?

The program in question is called BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development), a discretionary grant program originally known as Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER). It came about during the Obama administration as a stimulus response to the Great Recession in 2009. During that first year, the program had $1.5 billion to dole out to a variety of transportation projects; it contributed funding to the 13-state Crescent Corridor freight rail project; Chicago’s bottleneck-busting CREATE program; bus rapid transit projects in Denver and Las Vegas; streetcars in Dallas, Portland, and New Orleans; and bicycle and pedestrian networks in Philadelphia and Indianapolis. The program has been averaging around $500 million each year since, continuing with that experimental approach of boosting multimodal programs.

As an Obama-era creation, TIGER has naturally been an endangered species on Trump’s budget proposals. But instead of killing the program altogether, the Trump administration renamed it in 2018. Last year, Congress allocated $1.5 billion under the BUILD program; this year it has issued $880 million. But the spirit of the original program changed dramatically under the new branding.

According to Eno’s analysis, provided to CityLab via email, the past three years of discretionary grants have funded the construction of more roads and bridges while reducing commitments to mass transit, rail, and bike/pedestrian infrastructure.

What makes the pattern particularly frustrating to transit advocates is that TIGER was a small program, by infrastructure-spending standards, but its modest grants gave a big boost to oddball projects that didn’t quite fit in the standard funding formulas.

“Our overriding principle was we wanted to fund projects that weren’t all that easy to fund under other programs,” says Beth Osborne, the director of the advocacy organization Transportation For America. She managed TIGER when she worked in Obama’s Department of Transportation from 2009 to 2014. “We really focused on our five strategic goals—safety, state of repair, economic development, environmental sustainability, and quality of life.”

As a discretionary program, TIGER/BUILD is a much smaller amount of spending compared to multi-billion formula-based surface transportation bills that fund the construction and maintenance of the country’s road infrastructure. Roughly $40 billion in federal dollars goes annually to building new highways, roads, and bridges, for example; state and local governments, meanwhile, spend a whopping $175 billion on roads and highways.

“If a state DOT could just use their formula grant funding towards that project, a question we would have is, ‘Well, why are they coming to TIGER then?’ We were looking for projects that maybe were a little harder to do because they were multimodal or more innovative or cross-jurisdictional, or it was an entity that didn’t get direct assistance from the federal government,” Osborne says.

(Transportation for America)

Now most grants are going to road-building, which makes sense if you’ve been following the Trump administration’s political playbook of favoring rural areas. But it’s not clear what larger goals the administration is pursuing, beyond spending money, Osborne says: “I have trouble knowing what they’re trying to do with this program in an ideal world with their priorities. Is it just to have a handful of hard-hat jobs for six months while you build a project? Is it to revitalize downtowns? Is it to connect people to essential jobs and services? Is it to reduce fatalities? Like, what are you trying to get done?”

She also suggests that—much like the president’s tariffs—a zero-sum game of punishing cities could backfire. After all, some of these multimodal projects would be used to take rural goods to market, or connect residents of smaller towns to jobs. “I understand why this administration might go in deep for rural America,” Osborne says. “But it’s a narrow reading of what is beneficial to rural America to primarily fund projects that are literally inside rural America.”

As Eno’s Jeff Davis notes, the six grants maxed out at $25 million include five road projects—an interstate interchange in Aurora, Colorado; a dam mitigation in Des Moines, Iowa; bridge replacements in Woolwich, Maine, and Providence, Rhode Island; and transportation improvements in Houston, Texas—plus a port, a petroleum and cement marine terminal port in Anchorage, Alaska.

If you squint hard enough, fans of non-automotive mobility can see some BUILD-funded benefits. The aforementioned Houston road project also includes bike lanes and sidewalks. Other grants will go to a pedestrian bridge in Baldwin, Alabama; a road diet in Greenville, North Carolina; a parkway in Springfield, Missouri; and an “alternative mobility network” in Orlando, Florida. There are bus rapid transit projects for Baton Rouge and Memphis, including a dedicated lane running down B.B. King Boulevard.

But even the handful of bike lanes and sidewalks that are getting federal dollars via BUILD are clearly sneaking those benefits past the drivers. Just take a look at the literal hoops the Veterans Boulevard Interchange in Fresno, California, must go through to make a bike and pedestrian trail work around the interchange above it.

(City of Fresno)

It’s not these projects are innately objectionable, Osborne says; it’s just not clear why BUILD is the one providing the money. “I don’t know why California couldn’t just do it,” she says of that Fresno interchange. “They get over a billion dollars from the feds and they just raised their gas tax. I’m not sure why a project like that couldn’t be done with that money instead of these discretionary funds.”

Transportation For America has recently argued that federal funding for new car-centric infrastructure needs to halt entirely; instead, the government should prioritize fixing the current U.S. road and bridge network—which has a considerable maintenance backlog—and encouraging the shift to transit, biking, and walking. Clearly, that’s not happening under the current administration; BUILD’s budget is just one reflection of those priorities.

“There has been a lack of vision about what the [BUILD] program is supposed to accomplish,” Osborne said. “The only goal is the expenditure of dollars, where Congress says, ‘If they give me more money, I will issue a press release talking about how much money is going to be spent.’ And that’s what we’ve done. We need to say what the money will accomplish.”

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