Should federal grants favor highway rehabilitation over expansion?

Arizona officials refer to a notoriously congested stretch of desert highway through tribal lands as the Wild Horse Pass Corridor, a label less about horses than about the bustling casino of the same name just north of where the highway narrows to four lanes.

With the support of the Gila River Indian Community, the state has allocated or raised approximately $600 million from a nearly $1 billion plan that would remove the most bottlenecked, 26-mile section of I-10 on the route between Phoenix and Tucson. broaden.

But the bid for federal grant money under the new infrastructure law to get the job done fell short, leading some road construction advocates to accuse the Biden administration of devaluing those projects to focus on repairs and public transportation.

“Indignant would be the right terminology,” Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said of his reaction when he learned that the project will not receive one of the first bill mega-grants the U.S. Department of Transportation will announce this week. “We thought we had done a good job putting the proposal together. We thought we ticked all the boxes.”

The historic federal investment in infrastructure has revived dormant transportation projects, but debate over its prioritization has only intensified in the 14 months since President Joe Biden signed the measure into law.

The law follows decades of neglect in the maintenance of the country’s roads, bridges, water systems and airports. Research by Yale University economist Ray Fair estimates that a sharp decline in infrastructure investment in the US has led to a $5.2 trillion deficit. The entire bill will cost a total of $1 trillion, and it seeks not only to clear that dangerous backlog of projects, but also to build broadband internet across the country and protect it from damage caused by climate change.

However, some of the money has gone to building new highways — a big chunk of the nearly 30% increases that Arizona and most other states will receive over the next five years in the form of funding they can use to prioritize to their own transportation needs.

For specific projects, many of the largest prizes available by law are through a variety of highly competitive grants. The Department of Transportation received about $30 billion in applications for just the first $1 billion in Mega Grants awarded, spokesman Dani Simons said.

Another $1 billion will be available each of the next four years before funding runs out. Still, the first batch has been closely watched for signals about the administration’s preferences.

Jeff Davis, a senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said it’s already clear that the Biden administration plans to spend a larger portion of its discretionary transportation funding on “non-highway projects” than the Trump administration did. However, with so much more total infrastructure money to work with, Davis said, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

For example, one of the projects that the administration told Congress it had selected for a Mega Grant will widen Interstate 10 — but in Mississippi, not Arizona. Davis said the department probably preferred the Mississippi project because of its significantly lower price tag. This year’s Mega Grants combine three different types of awards into a single application, one of which specifically targets rural and impoverished communities.

Some of the winning grants are for bridges, while others are for public transportation, including improvements to Chicago’s commuter train system and concrete casings for a rail tunnel in Midtown Manhattan.

Along with the nine selected projects, transportation department employees named seven others as “highly recommended” — an accolade Davis said makes them clear frontrunners for raising money next year. Arizona’s I-10 widening effort was part of a third group of 13 projects labeled “recommended,” which Davis says could make them eligible for future funding unless outnumbered by even stronger applicants.

But such decisions remain largely subjective.

Proponents of regions like the Southwest, where populations are growing but more dispersed, argue that their need for new or wider highways is as much of a national priority as a major city’s need for more subway stations or bike lanes.

Arizona State Representative Teresa Martinez, a Republican who represents Casa Grande on the south side of the corridor, said she was furious when she learned from a congressional office that the administration may have rejected the I-10 project because it hadn’t had enough “multimodal” components.

“What does that even mean?” she said. “…They wanted to fund projects with bike lanes and trails instead of a major highway?”

Testifying before the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works in March, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg assured Democratic U.S. Senator Mark Kelly that he understood the state’s unique highway needs and that his department would “not stand in the way of a capacity expansion.” where it is appropriate.”

However, some Republicans remain skeptical, in part because of a memo the Federal Highway Administration circulated in December 2021, a month after Biden signed the bill into law. The document suggested that states should usually “prioritize repair, rehabilitation, reconstruction, replacement and maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure” over new road construction.

While state officials dismissed the memo as an internal communication, not a policy decision, critics claimed it sought to bypass Congress and influence highway construction decisions traditionally left to states under their formula funding.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the memo had the same weight as a formal rule, which Congress could challenge by passing a resolution of censure. West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, the leading Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, promised to write one.

According to figures provided by the Federal Highway Administration to The Associated Press, 12 capacity expansion projects have received funding through previous competitive grants since the memo was issued. States have also used their formula funding for 763 such projects totaling $7.1 billion.

As for the Arizona project, some state officials have expressed plans to move forward on their own if they can’t get federal money — though they’re not giving up on that either. Considering that one accident could impede traffic between the state’s two largest cities for miles, it remains a top priority, they say.

McFarland, the mayor of Casa Grande, said the next filing may highlight some of the other components of the $360 million request, in addition to widening the highway — including bike lanes that tribal leaders have long sought for some of the viaducts.

“If you read the tea leaves, you can see where they are,” McFarland said. “… It’s a competitive process. You don’t always get it the first time you ask. So ask again.”


McMurray reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this story.

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