DOT Introduces Criteria for Discretionary Grant Funds

$1.5 billion in Recovery funds will go to surface transportation projects

On Friday, the Department of Transportation released its guidelines for the distribution of the Recovery Act‘s $1.5 billion in discretionary grants, which will go to communities across the country later this year. Funds will be allocated in amounts of between $20 and $300 million, with “rigorous economic justifications” required for projects costing more than $100 million. Applications are due on September 15, and funds will be distributed for projects to start construction before September 30, 2011. (via Beyond DC)

Eligible projects include highways, bridges, public transportation, intercity and freight rail, and port infrastructure. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will ultimately choose which projects are funded, based on a set of objective criteria.

The primary measures being considered in project selection are potential long-term outcomes and job creation, in keeping with the original goals of the Recovery bill. Long-term outcomes may include reaching a state of good repair, improving economic competitiveness, increasing livability or sustainability, or expanding safety.

The livability element seems the most relevant to me: it encourages communities to push forward with projects that create more “options” for travelers, improve points of modal connectivity, and most importantly, “improve accessibility and transport services for economically disadvantaged populations, non-drivers, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities.” The criteria released by the DOT specifically mentions the creation of bicycle or walking infrastructure, so it’s possible that cities could get large grants to implement bike paths or pedestrian bridges, for instance.

Relevant existing programs — such as the New Starts process — will be used to judge projects. However, the report does not indicate an anticipated partition between modes; in other words, it’s not clear whether 30% or 50% of these funds will be going to public transportation, or whether highways will get all the funds. DOT has the next few years to consider and then distribute funds. However, we can only hope that the projects selected fulfill needs for transportation improvements currently not being adequately funded by DOT programs.

In fact, this discretionary program provides an ideal opportunity to sponsor projects that have few other sources of money, such as bike share. Highway construction, and, frankly, transit expansion programs, already have dedicated funding streams. The Secretary should take advantage of his discretion here to give money to projects that are experimental, innovative, and different.

1 Comment | Leave a Reply »
  • Thanks for the news. I wouldn’t even suggest, though, that because transit has a dedicated funding stream it shouldn’t get a significant chunk of these one-time funds. There’s a particular urgency to transit investments right now because at some point soon we’re going to emerge from this slump and city-building will resume. City-building can respond to transit investments as they’re happening, but in the absence of those investments we risk getting more development in forms that transit can never serve well. I’d argue that transit investments conceived during this slump have a particularly high likelihood of galvanizing permanent improvements in city form.

    I’ll be curious to see how the Republican Secretary of Transportation ends up dividing these resources among the states.

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