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Clean Vehicles

Car-Free Transportation Gets Boost from U.S. Grant Program

Scott Graham

(Bloomberg) —

A federal grant program that had become a honeypot for rural highway-building in the Trump years has pivoted in favor of projects for sidewalks, bikes and public transit.

In the new tranche of almost $1 billion in RAISE grant selections from the U.S. Department of Transportation announced earlier this month, roads were the losers. RAISE — which stands for Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity — is the latest version of USDOT’s multimodal grant program, which has gone by other names and priorities under previous presidents.

Born under the Obama administration as TIGER grants (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery), the earliest iteration of the program doled out recession-era stimulus funds for streetcar extensions, pedestrian networks and other projects that didn’t easily qualify for traditional sources of funding. Redubbed BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) in the Trump years, the program mostly funded new roads and wider highways

Under President Joe Biden, the pendulum has swung once again: According to an analysis by Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, only about 5% of RAISE funds will support new roads, and 10% will go to projects that increase road capacity. The rest will flow to a mix of projects such as a freeway cap in Atlanta, a greenway project in Cincinnati, transit planning in Omaha, Missoula and Charlotte, and pedestrian and bike safety improvements in Denver, Oakland and Wilmington. As the below charts show, that represents a significant departure from the previous year’s grant winners. 

That’s promising news for car-free advocates who are warily eyeing the large share of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that is devoted to all things automotive. But the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) also allocates roughly $100 billion for USDOT to dole out through competitive grant programs. That figure includes an annual $1.5 billion boost for the RAISE program, $1 billion for reconnecting communities divided by old infrastructure, $5 billion for cities to plan safer streets and many more billions for cleaner buses and ferries, pedestrianization projects and EV charging. 

“If these RAISE grants are an indication of how the administration plans to distribute funds under the infrastructure bill, they’re a good sign,” Freemark tweeted. “The administration clearly gets it: Prioritize pedestrians, bikes, and transit over roadway expansion.”

Still, if transit, walking and biking programs are like U.S. soccer, driving infrastructure is like the National Football League. Even with historic levels of support for public transit ($39 billion) and intercity rail ($66 billion), the vast majority of the $550 billion in new funding in the IIIJA is for roads and highways.

Rather than be distributed at federal discretion, these funds will flow automatically to states based on existing formulas. State departments of transportation will then determine how to spend the roughly 30% funding increase they’re set to receive, with few strings attached. A provision that would have required roads to be repaired before they are widened, for example, was taken out during Senate negotiations. 

Expanding Highways

While highway money could be spent on bus rapid transit or bike paths, many of the nation’s road builders are likely to stick to the status quo and simply add vehicle lanes, Freemark said in a follow-up interview. 

“For the most part, states are so focused on highway expansion because that’s what they’ve been doing for decades,” he said. “This new money could be their opportunity to simply do more of that.”

With formula funding heading out the door in the coming weeks, other parts of the country could start to announce building plans imminently. Adie Tomer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he’ll be watching to see which states opt for highway-building alternatives and how those choices align with politics. A recent Pew survey found that 73% of Republicans said they preferred to live in areas with larger homes even if it meant driving to schools, shops and restaurants, compared with 49% of Democrats, who preferred more compact, walkable communities. 

“It’s going to be fascinating to watch heartland states versus more coastal states spending this money,” Tomer said. “Transportation is not in and of itself political. But we’ve started to see how transportation attitudes follow our political divides.”

Yet highways are popular in both blue and red states: In Democrat-controlled Illinois, officials have already announced their hopes to use their $17 billion in federal infrastructure dollars to widen Chicago’s Eisenhower Expressway and three other interstates, much to the chagrin of environmental and street safety advocates. With transportation generating nearly 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions — the largest share of any sector — that means the lion’s share of new federal resources aren’t set up to solve the climate crisis. In fact, they may only deepen it. 

For advocates, that places an even greater importance on the IIJA’s billions of dollars in grant funding, which the Biden administration is expected to distribute with an eye towards racial equity and environmental impacts. It will take time for USDOT to shape those programs, hire staff to oversee them, and move through requisite approval processes. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, it took nearly a year for the first TIGER grants to get out the door. Rather than rush to spend the new resources, Tomer said he hopes cities and metropolitan regions in particular take the opportunity to plan how they want to grow and move far into the future. 

Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, echoed that sentiment and described the new RAISE grant selections as a model for governments to follow.

“The U.S. is about to spend an unprecedented $1.2 trillion on infrastructure,” she said in a statement. “Cities and states must propose — and states and USDOT must select — projects that directly address the safety, climate, and equity crises that America faces today.”

To contact the author of this story:
Laura Bliss in San Francisco at lbliss2@bloomberg.net

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