Despite Multiple Redesigns and Rebrandings, This Grant Program Continues To Be a White House Slush Fund

The transportation grant program is in trouble. It has seen three Presidential administrations and many rebrandings. However, the vast majority of funding was given to projects without any connection to transportation or national priorities.

In 2021, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Rebuilding American Infrastructure With Sustainability and Equity grant program awarded nearly $1 billion by President Joe Biden to States, Localities and Territories during his first year of office.

Nineteen of the 90 projects which received funding from the RAISE Program could be considered national. Forty-eight of the RAISE grants that were granted last year could not be classified as transportation projects.

According to the Reason Foundation, 41 out of 90 funded projects were awarded to states or districts represented on the various finance and transportation committees.

Baruch Feigenbaum of Reason Foundation is a transportation researcher. He says that this problem stems from the White House’s near total discretion to give these grants in any way it chooses.

Feigenbaum says that a discretionary grant should work better in theory because it focuses on funding the most urgent and greatest need. They have been treated “like a personal slush funds” by successive administrations. They are not going to make any difference.”

As part of Congress’ 2009 stimulus bill, the Biden administration started its RAISE grant program. This gave the White House $1.5 Billion and broad discretion as to how they would spend it.

Obama’s Transportation Investments Generating economic Recovery (TIGER), program directed large amounts of the funding to multimodal transit projects and streetcars. It also funded recreational trails and other transportation projects.

Feigenbaum also said that the program was prone to politicization. Many of its grants were given out to swing district Democratic Congressmen who are vulnerable. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly criticized TIGER for funding projects with high technical scores to pay for ones with lower technical ratings.

It was initially created to stimulate the economy temporarily, but Congress continued to support the TIGER program with approximately $500 million throughout the Obama presidency.

Despite Republican opposition during the years of former President Barack Obama and earlier Trump administration plans to end it altogether, the program was extended once the GOP took full control in Washington.

In 2018, former President Donald Trump’s White House used $1.5 billion provided by a Republican-controlled Congress to refashion TIGER as the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program.

BUILD was able to spend more money on projects of national importance and transportation projects. However, this was mostly an accident with most of the awards being for road and port projects located in rural areas that are heavily Republican.

A report by the Congressional Research Service for 2019 shows that 69 per cent of 2018 BUILD project were conducted in rural locations.

Feigenbaum states that spending too much on rural areas led to a lack of funding for more urban and suburban transport priorities. Feigenbaum adds that RAISE grants managed to bring together the best elements from both of previous administrations’ programs.

Despite having more mobility infrastructure and transportation needs in the urban area, Biden’s administration kept the requirement that RAISE grants be evenly divided between rural and urban areas.

Like the Obama Administration’s TIGER Program, a lot of RAISE grants go to hiking trails and pedestrian greenways in rural Arkansas.

Feigenbaum states that to fix these discretionary grant programmes, a president or transportation secretary must be competent and interested in transport policy.

He argues that Trump failed to meet the previous requirement, while Pete Buttigieg, the current Transportation Secretary, is more interested in setting him up for a presidential run than the efficient movement and transportation of cargo and commuters.

Perhaps the fourth presidency is the magic?