DOT Freight Grants Worth $78.9M Benefit Key Senators, States

By Shaun Courtney

The 10 recipients of almost $80 million in targeted freight grants may be spread across the country from Washington state to Mississippi, but they share at least one thing in common: their members of Congress sit on key transportation or appropriations committees.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) this month announced the recipients of $78.88 million in FASTLANE Small Project grants for freight infrastructure projects. The grant applications were submitted during the Obama administration, but the awardees were selected by the Trump administration.

A Bloomberg BNA analysis shows that each of the grants was awarded to areas represented in Washington by a well-placed senator, in a politically significant state or county—or both.

The DOT said it evaluated the 123 small project grant applications based on criteria such as cost-sharing, mobility, safety, and community and environmental outcomes, among other elements. FASTLANE is an acronym for Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-Term Achievement of National Efficiencies.

In the end, however, the decision on the 10 winners rested with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

“Ultimately, it is the Secretary who selects the projects for whom to propose awards,” the DOT said in a written statement to Bloomberg BNA.

The Trump administration’s commitment to reducing the federal grant footprint is expected to leave less money for states to pursue in the future, which means political factors could become more significant for grant applicants going forward.

Earmarks ‘Alive and Well’

Nine of the 10 grants will go to states represented by a senator who sits on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, the Appropriations Committee, or sometimes both.

“While the formal practice of earmarks has gone away, the reality is that practice is alive and well in the United States Congress,” John Hudak, a deputy director at the Brookings Institution and author of a book on earmarks, told Bloomberg BNA.

Senior agency officials and political appointees know who sits on the appropriations and authorizing committees and understand that congressional oversight can become “burdensome” to agencies when key players are unhappy, Hudak said.

Florida, Maine and Mississippi received grants and each state has a powerful authorizer or appropriator in the Senate:

  •  Commerce, Science, Transportation Committee ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).
  •  Appropriations THUD subcommittee Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine).
  •  Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
The only state to be awarded a grant without a senator in a key position was Ohio, usually a swing state in presidential elections. And the district in which the funded project is located is represented by a House appropriator.

Power to Choose

Competitive grants like the FASTLANE grants tend to give the administration more discretion to pick winners and losers, according to Hudak.

“In the most competitive states, you’re trying to keep your voters happy,” Hudak said. “And federal grants, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, job creation is a really nice way of doing that.”

Six of the 10 states awarded grants voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Among the recipient states that backed Hillary Clinton are several swing states. Some of the grants also went to several so-called pivot counties, those that voted for Trump in 2016 after supporting Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

For example, the Rogers’ Rangers Bridge project in New Hampshire, a state gave its electoral votes to Clinton, is located in Coos County and connects to Essex County, Vt. Both Coos and Essex counties were Trump pivot counties, according to voting data from Ballotopedia. New Hampshire has two Democratic senators—Sen. Jeanne Shaheen sits on the Appropriations Committee and Sen. Maggie Hassan serves on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

“There’s no apolitical distribution of funds in the United States,” Hudak told Bloomberg BNA. “It’s just a matter of what political source is benefiting or how many political sources will benefit.”

FASTLANE Grants

The FASTLANE Small Projects grants will help fund improvements to 100 rail crossings, 250 miles of track and more than 70 rail bridges, according to a DOT release:

U.S. 550 South Connection to U.S. 160: La Plata County, Colo., $12.3 million.

Competitiveness & Employment by Rail (CEBYR) Project, Taylor County, Fla., $8.7 million.

Burns Harbor: Enhanced Intermodal Facilities with Rail & Truck Marshalling Yards, Ports of Indiana, Ind., $9.9 million.

Maine Railroad Bridge Capacity Project, Maine Department of Transportation, Maine, $7,890,000.

U.S. Highway 10 Lake Michigan Crossing Dock Facility Improvements, City of Ludington/City of Manitowoc, Mason County, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis., $5 million.

North Central Mississippi Railway Project, North Central Mississippi Regional Railroad Authority, Miss., $7.5 million.

Rogers’ Rangers Bridge, State of New Hampshire, Coos County, N.H., and Essex County, Vt., $5 million.

Evans Avenue Railroad Grade Separation Improvements, City of Akron, Ohio, $5.7 million.

Northern Columbia Basin Rail Road Project, Port of Moses Lake, Grant County, Wash., $9.9 million.

SORR Rehabilitation and Presidio International Rail Bridge Reconstruction, Texas Department of Transportation, West Texas, $7 million.

The Trump administration is re-soliciting fiscal year 2017 applications for what were previously the FASTLANE Large Project grants, a counterpart to the grants announced Aug. 8. The department is accepting applications until Nov. 2 for fiscal 2017 Large Projects and fiscal 2018 Large and Small Projects under the Infrastructure Rebuilding America (INFRA) Grants program, which the administration said will give preference to rural projects.

With assistance from Madi Alexander.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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