Should federal grants favor highway repair over expansion?

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

With the support of the Gila River Indian community, the state has allocated or raised about $600 million of a nearly $1 billion plan that would have expanded the 26-mile section of I-10 that causes multiple bottlenecks on the route between Phoenix and Tucson.

But his bid for the federal grant under the new infrastructure law to complete the job fell through, leaving some road-building advocates to accuse the Biden administration of cheapening those projects to focus on repairs and mass transit.

“Upset would be the right terminology,” Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said of his reaction when he learned the project won’t receive one of the bill’s first Mega Grants to be announced by the U.S. Department of Transportation this week. “We thought we did a good job putting the proposal together. We thought we checked all the boxes.

Historic federal investment in infrastructure has reignited dormant transportation projects, but the debate about how to prioritize them has only intensified in the 14 months since President Joe Biden signed the measure.

The law follows decades of neglect in the maintenance of the nation’s roads, bridges, water systems and airports. Research by Yale University economist Ray Fair estimates that a steep decline in infrastructure investment in the United States has caused a $5.2 trillion deficit. The entire bill totals $1 trillion and seeks to not only fix that dangerous backlog of projects, but also build broadband internet nationwide and protect against the harm caused by climate change.

Some of the money, however, has gone to building new highways, largely from the nearly 30% increases Arizona and most other states will receive over the next five years in the funding formula they can use to prioritize to your transport needs.

For specific projects, many of the largest awards available under the Act are through various highly competitive grants. The Department of Transportation has received about $30 billion worth of applications for just the first $1 billion in mega-grants awarded, spokeswoman Dani Simons said.

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

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

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

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

Along with the nine shortlisted projects, Department of Transportation staff have listed seven others as “highly recommended” — a distinction Davis says makes them clear favorites to secure money next year. Arizona’s I-10 widening effort was part of a third group of 13 projects labeled “recommended,” which Davis says could put them in contention for future funding unless they are outbid by even stronger candidates.

But such decisions remain largely subjective.

Supporters of regions like the Southwest, where populations are growing but more spread out, argue that their need for new or wider highways is as big a national priority as a major city’s need for more subway stations or cycle paths.

Arizona State Representative Teresa Martinez, a Republican who represents Casa Grande at the southern end of the corridor, was furious when she learned from a congressional office that the administration could reject the I-10 project because it had not sufficient “multimode” components.

“What does that even mean?” she said. “….Were they trying to fund projects that have bike lanes and trails instead of a major highway?”

Testifying before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in March, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg assured Democratic United States Senator from Arizona Mark Kelly that he understood the state’s unique highway needs and that his department would not would “prevent an expansion of capacity where it is appropriate.

Some Republicans, however, remain skeptical, in part due to a memo distributed by the Federal Highway Administration in December 2021, a month after Biden signed the bill into law. The document suggests that states should usually “prioritize the repair, rehabilitation, reconstruction, replacement and maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure” over the construction of new roads.

Though administration officials dismissed the memo as an internal communication, not a policy decision, critics said they were trying to sidestep Congress and influence highway construction decisions traditionally left to states under their funding formula.

The Government Accountability Office concluded last month that the memo carried equal weight as a formal rule, which Congress could challenge by passing a disapproval resolution. Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the ranking Republican on the environment and public works committee, pledged to write one.

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

As for the Arizona project, some state officials have expressed plans to go it alone if they can’t get federal money, though they aren’t giving up on that either. Considering that one crash can sustain traffic for miles between the state’s two largest cities, they say it remains a top priority.

McFarland, the mayor of Casa Grande, said perhaps the next question will highlight some of the other components of the $360 million request in addition to highway expansion, including bike lanes that tribal leaders have long sought for some of the overpass.

“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. Then ask again.


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

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