In the Trump Era, Transportation Funding Is Simple: Build Roads

By Andrew Small, CityLab

Originally published on November 14, 2019.

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).

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.

Read the rest of the article on CityLab.

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