But shortly after Pete Buttigieg was confirmed as transportation secretary, his department announced that it would judge projects based on their racial-equity and environmental benefits. Reynolds assembled a team that scrambled to put together an application.
The city is seeking $45 million to help fund projects on major streets in South Los Angeles, trying to remedy harms caused by an interstate highway running through the area. The proposal calls for bike lanes, safer crosswalks, new shade trees and bus-boarding islands. It also would involve installing 300 electric-vehicle chargers, putting up air-quality sensors and extending broadband access to 11,000 homes.
“I see it as a form of validating and showing L.A.’s support for this pivot U.S. DOT is trying to make,” Reynolds said. “If they really want projects that center equity and climate, I want to give them one.”
The new criteria demonstrate one way Buttigieg’s team has put its imprint on the Department of Transportation. They also offer a preview of how the administration is seeking to reshape the nation’s transportation networks as it tries to advance major infrastructure funding through Congress. The $600 billion transportation portion of the package — part of a $2 trillion proposal — calls for the expansion of existing grant funds and the creation of new ones.
“We are committed to not just rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, but building back in a way that positions American communities for success in the future,” Buttigieg said in a statement in February when the new INFRA standards were announced.
In March, the department added climate and equity criteria to a $230 million port infrastructure grant program, and this week, it rebranded its marquee $1 billion grant program as RAISE — Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity.
The grant programs are a way for the federal government to shape the behavior of states and cities that build the nation’s roads and bridges. Applicants and consultants who work with the jurisdictions say projects will have to be reassessed to be competitive for the coveted awards, even if environmental and racial-justice issues had not previously been applicants’ priorities.
“They’re setting a standard for at least the next four years,” said Kirsten Mote, a planning consultant at Modern Mobility Partners in Atlanta. “They want to invest in projects that are going to benefit everybody.”
Some Republicans in Congress have questioned Buttigieg’s focus on the environment and racial equity. Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), a transportation subcommittee leader, wrote to Buttigieg in March to say the changes to the INFRA program were not in line with the law that created it and would muddy its intended goal of aiding the economy.
“It is incredibly frustrating to see the apparent disregard for legal requirements in exchange for unquantifiable political objectives,” Graves wrote.
The grants present the opportunity to carry out major projects that states and cities could not otherwise afford. Still, there are limits to how much influence the federal government can have through the programs. While INFRA and RAISE amount to about a combined $2 billion a year, that is a small slice of the tens of billions in federal transportation spending that mostly flows to states through formulas set by Congress.
Applicants also had just four weeks to submit their proposals to INFRA. Federal officials told applicants the timeline was dictated by the law that set up the program, but it means there were few opportunities for cities and states to fundamentally rethink their projects.
A review of applications shows that in some cases, states submitted highway projects that also were advanced under the old criteria. The new versions of the applications sought to highlight ways they meet the new standards, noting pedestrian facilities or underscoring plans to integrate electric-vehicle charging.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is seeking $42 million to repair a road connecting two interstates in rural Schuylkill County. Part of the road is at risk of slipping down a hillside and one lane was closed in 2018.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of time,” said Chris Kufro, a regional leader for the state Transportation Department. “You really can’t change the project. You really have to rework what your benefits are.”
Pennsylvania’s new application notes that the road will be rebuilt to better resist storms that have become more severe as the climate changes. It acknowledges that the county is overwhelmingly White, but highlights how the highway is an important link in an economically struggling part of the country.
Last year, INFRA funded 20 projects, most of them designed to boost the capacity of highways. They included $35 million to help build a new exit on Interstate 77 in South Carolina and $71 million to build a bypass in Mississippi.
Now, some applicants are hoping to find success with projects that rethink the role of highways as the Biden administration spotlights ways their construction often tore through urban communities of color.
Even as the Federal Highway Administration has asked Texas officials to stop work on a highway-widening project in Houston, the state’s Department of Transportation is pursuing a Dallas project that it hopes will find favor with Buttigieg.
The state is seeking $146 million to redesign a half-buried section of Interstate 30 known as the Canyon. When the road was built in the 1960s, it sliced through one of Dallas’s oldest neighborhoods, cutting it off from downtown and leaving it economically depressed decades later. The Texas application seeks to modernize the highway while reconnecting the communities on either side with new bridges and the redesign of existing crossings. The project would shrink the highway’s footprint, opening 14 acres for development.
Melissa Meyer, a public involvement specialist at the Texas Department of Transportation, started making the case for submitting the project even before the grant criteria were released, figuring it fit with early messaging from the Biden team.
“The stars really aligned for the Canyon project,” Meyer said. “Everything we had already put into this project really neatly aligned with what U.S. DOT was looking for.”
It will not become clear what kind of approach proves most successful until Buttigieg makes his final selections in the summer. Teams of reviewers at the federal Transportation Department will assess the applications and choose which to submit to Buttigieg, who will make the final decisions.
While the process involves a rating system, applicants say the decision-making has been opaque in the past — a criticism also leveled by the Government Accountability Office in a 2019 report.
Leaders in Wenatchee, a small city in central Washington state, say they were told their $140 million Apple Capital Loop proposal scored well in past years and are offering it again. They hope the project’s focus on electric buses and pedestrian and bike trails — as well as community engagement work in a region where almost one-third of residents are Latino — will improve its chances under the new criteria.
“We were excited to apply again because this is our fourth application, but we feel that every time we get a little closer,” said Laura Merrill, Wenatchee’s executive services director.
The types of projects selected for grants under the program now called RAISE, which tend to be smaller and more varied, shifted significantly between the Obama and Trump administrations. Under President Donald Trump, the program was used to back more projects in rural areas and came to favor roads over transit and rail.
Officials in Durham, N.C., are hopeful the new focus on racial equity and the environment will mean the Belt Line, a bike and pedestrian trail for which the city is seeking about $10 million, will win federal backing after several years of trying.
Community advocates were concerned that without engagement with current residents, the trail could foster gentrification and displacement of longtime residents. Activism around the project ultimately led to the city’s adopting a new approach to equitable development.
Tara Mei Smith, who helped to lead a project called Durham Belt Line for Everybody — which sought to ensure that the trail was designed in an inclusive way — said it is significant that the federal government is putting money behind its approach.
“There are plenty of planners who are not apprised of this conversation at all,” she said. “It’s an essential frame shift that has to happen.”