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Federal program debuts climate change, racial justice criteria as part of infrastructure grants

The projects chosen for coveted federal backing send a signal about how the Biden administration’s infrastructure might play out in practice

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg talks to reporters during a news conference with the congressional delegation of New York and New Jersey earlier this week. (Justin Lane/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

For the first time, federal transportation officials judged projects seeking multimillion-dollar grants from a highway, rail and port infrastructure fund based on how they might tackle climate change and racial injustice.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced his choices for the $900 million fund Wednesday, backing projects that he said also would spur the economy. The decisions offer a preview of how the Biden administration’s infrastructure policy might reshape road and rail networks if Congress agrees on a major spending package.

“We’re talking about new jobs being created, we’re talking about communities finding new economic lifelines,” Buttigieg said. “We’re talking about families and businesses that are going to be able to count on safer and more reliable transportation infrastructure.”

The grant program, known as Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA), is not new, but projects were judged this year on their environmental effects and impact on disadvantaged communities, alongside long-standing economic development goals. Two-thirds of the projects selected involve highway construction or repairing bridges, but some applicants took an unusual approach to a program largely designed to speed the movement of trucks and freight trains.

The Transportation Department has little say over how most of the billions of dollars it sends to states and local governments are used. But the INFRA program and a billion-dollar fund that the new administration has branded Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) are largely within Buttigieg’s control. While they represent a small slice of federal transportation spending, they are a way for the department to put money behind its priorities while encouraging state and local agencies to adopt those goals.

As Biden shifts infrastructure focus to climate and racial justice, cities and states alter pitches for federal money

In Los Angeles, officials had not planned to seek an INFRA grant for a project designed to make streets in part of the city safer for pedestrians and cyclists, but they scrambled to put together an application when the new criteria were unveiled. The city was awarded $18 million on Wednesday.

The project is focused on mitigating harm to neighborhoods close to freeways carrying trucks from ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach. The money will be used to make intersections safer for pedestrians, install bike lanes and plant shade trees.

Almost all residents in South Los Angeles, where the project is located, identify as non-White; one-third live in poverty; and one-fifth don’t have car access, according to city officials. Its streets are among the most dangerous in the city.

The Transportation Department highlighted the city’s outreach in Black and Latino communities when designing the program, saying increased travel on foot, by bike or by public transit would reduce emissions and improve safety.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti (D), who joined Buttigieg virtually for the grant announcements, said options in the neighborhood largely involve a car and becoming stuck in traffic, but the project funded by the grant would help change that.

“This administration gets it, and I think, increasingly, this country gets it: Infrastructure ignored and infrastructure done badly harms people, but infrastructure done well helps people,” Garcetti said.

Applicants had only a few weeks between the time Buttigieg’s team announced the new environmental and racial justice criteria and the submission deadline. Many applicants recycled previous proposals.

Consultants who work with states and cities to secure federal grant money said the new criteria are likely to have a larger effect on the design of projects in subsequent years.

Buttigieg said applicants didn’t have to demonstrate environmental or equity benefits, noting the program was established to focus on highways and freight routes. He said reducing carbon emissions from transportation is part of a bigger effort by the administration.

The Transportation Department said almost half the money announced Wednesday will be directed to rural areas, well above a 25 percent requirement set by Congress.

The largest award, $92 million, will go to Wenatchee, Wash., a community of 34,000 in an apple-growing region. The money will help to build a new road network for freight traffic and double the frequency of electric bus service. Some will be used for a pedestrian bridge over a river, connecting the poorest parts of the region.

Laura Merrill, the city’s executive services director, learned about the award Friday from the office of Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.). In an interview that day, Merrill said she was still processing it and trying to draft a news release.

“The mayor and I have been on calls all morning since we found out,” she said. “We haven’t gotten a chance to think about, ‘Should we high-five?’ ”

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The city had applied for the program several times in the past. Despite positive feedback from Transportation Department staff members who review projects, Merrill said, the city had never made the cut.

Merrill said she thinks the Biden administration’s new focus got the project across the line. City officials worked with the region’s Latino community to craft the application and emphasized environmental benefits in their pitch. The city had asked for $140 million, but she said the federal money will make it easier.

“Every little bit of good luck and good fortune that we had out there lined up,” Merrill said.

A portion of the money was awarded to projects designed to shift freight off trucks and onto trains or ships. That includes $5 million for rail tracks at a Dubuque, Iowa, port and $25 million for a South Carolina railroad connecting to a Volvo plant. The Georgia Ports Authority secured $47 million to build an inland container facility that will be linked to the Port of Savannah by a 324-mile rail line.

Rep. Andrew S. Clyde (R-Ga.) said that “this smart and targeted investment will bolster communities and businesses” across his district.

Another $49 million will go to the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority to build a 1,056-foot berth. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), who joined Buttigieg for the announcement, said the money would “bring new vitality to the region and new job opportunities.”

The Transportation Department said it reviewed 157 applications seeking $6.8 billion. The administration also has called for the expansion of existing grant programs and new funds for projects of national significance, new intercity rail links and removing or redesigning highways that divide urban neighborhoods.