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Federal Infrastructure Funding Still Favors Large Road Projects

New federal funding meant to update transportation infrastructure for more modern forms of mobility while also addressing heightened equity concerns seems to be holding fast to the status quo.

Aerial view of two large freeways intersecting with lots of overpasses and underpasses.
With more than 20 lanes in some segments, Houston's Katy Freeway is one of the widest highways in the world.
New funding to modernize public infrastructure and move the nation into new forms of transportation, as well as unlock longstanding equity concerns, could perpetuate the status quo by allocating money toward projects and places that have generally always received funding.

“Largely, we found that they did reinforce historic trends. So putting money where it was decided that money should go many years ago,” said Amanda Hermans, one of the authors of the report Is Federal Infrastructure Investment Advancing Equity Goals?, released by the Urban Institute.

Part of the study includes an interactive data tool that looks at per capita funding across a number of programs within the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other agencies impacted by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). That bipartisan legislation included $1.2 trillion to address outdated infrastructure.

A central ethos undergirding the infrastructure law was its directive to confront longstanding trends and patterns in federal funding that have led to inequitable outcomes — multi-lane highways built on top of communities of color, for example.

“There’s obviously been a lot of excitement from the federal government itself about all the money going into infrastructure,” said Yonah Freemark, another author of the Urban Institute report. “But we felt it was essential to think of infrastructure as more than just monetary distribution, and felt it was needed to consider the equity of that distribution.”

So the study examined funding moving through the two primary federal pipelines: formula funding programs, which accounts for about 80 percent of the money coming from the IIJA, and competitive grants, which make up the remaining 20 percent of the funding. And because the structure of these programs remains largely unchanged, their distribution of the federal funds tends to follow similar patterns it has in the past.

For example, large rural states with lots of miles of roads will receive large levels of road and bridge money from the National Highway Performance Program, one of the most significant federal programs to fund roads. In fact, the program will provide more than $284,000 per 1,000 residents in Montana, while a state like California, with nearly 40 million people, will receive $60,500 per 1,000 residents.

“Jurisdictions can choose to use that funding to fund things like public transit, and pedestrian and bike lanes, and other forms of transportation, but, it’s still going to the places that have the most roads and car use,” said Hermans, adding, the money is not distributed equitably across the country and favors locations with lots of roadways.

But the case the Urban Institute report is trying to make is an argument for basing funding decisions on more than just the miles of road in a state, and taking a more holistic view at the many other variables spread across the land. The National Highway Performance Program — by the way it is structured — provides fewer dollars per capita for areas with more trips, areas with more people of color and areas with high population density, said Freemark.

“So, there’s a tradeoff there,” he added. “And we’re asking people to just think about that tradeoff, and how that might cause negative outcomes for communities, and how it might reinforce conditions that we’ve been experiencing in the past.”

Should the program also consider the number of people in a community who do not have access to adequate transportation?, the researchers asked.

“One thing we tried to do with our tool was give folks on the ground or in the federal government an opportunity to compare those different attributes against one another,” said Freemark.

The other large transportation funding pipeline is the DOT's competitive grant programs, like the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program, which is where money for multimodal transportation projects come from. Only 7 percent of U.S. counties received RAISE funding in 2022, the report found. However, that funding seems to be distributed in a more equitable manner. The median metro funded by RAISE is 37 percent people of color, which compares to 29 percent in counties not receiving RAISE funding.

Researchers also pointed out the reality that competitive grants like RAISE are hardly effortless. They require staff time to apply and make the case that a project is deserving of funding.

“On the one hand it does appear that the competitive grants coming from these executive agencies are doing a better job reaching like, communities where people of color are more predominate in population, which I think is a positive thing when it comes to equity,” Freemark pointed out.

“But the competitive grants impose these bureaucratic difficulties for every community that wants to apply for them,” he added.

In fact, the study also found that those cities and counties which do not have staffing to write grants tended to miss out.

“We find that doubling local transportation staff capacity is associated with a 31-percentage-point higher likelihood of a metropolitan county winning a RAISE grant, for example,” reads the report.

“This is something that a lot of folks already had suspicion was true, but we gave some evidence to the fact that this is real correlation,” said Freemark.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.