Trump states and rural areas grab bigger chunk of transportation grant funds

Twenty-five of the 30 states President Donald Trump won in 2016 have received bigger shares of funding from a federal transportation program that has shifted to favoring rural projects over urban, according to a McClatchy analysis of Department of Transportation data.

The Trump administration is also giving roads a bigger chunk of the award money since President Barack Obama left office.

Grant recipients are getting nearly everything they sought — more than 90 percent of what they requested — in the Trump administration awards. During the Obama years, grant winners got about half of what they requested.

The grant program, now called Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, was created in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency. So far more than $7 billion has been awarded to 554 projects.

During the Obama administration, when the program was known as TIGER for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, nearly 80 percent of the money went to urban projects. During the two Trump years funded so far, nearly 70 percent of the dollars have gone to rural initiatives.

The Trump administration insists that the generous tilt towards rural projects was done to compensate for an Obama-era preference for urban grants.

Critics, however, say the Trump program has too often focused on its own version of the Three Rs: Rural, Republicans and Roads.

They say the current program is too heavy on paying for roads, while the mission to find innovative ways to move people and goods has been virtually forgotten.

“We see a problem in the direction these grants are going,” said Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat who chairs the House appropriations transportation subcommittee. Congress approved a plan to split the rural-urban money 50-50 this year.

The road to 2020

The change will not dictate what modes of transportation are funded. Since Trump took office in January 2017, roads have received nearly three-fourths of the program’s grant money after getting about one-third of the funds during the Obama administration.

Bicycle and pedestrian projects won roughly 6 percent of Obama awards, but have received none under Trump. Transit’s share dropped from nearly 25 percent of the Obama-era funds to just under 7 percent of the money awarded under Trump.

In the Trump administration, for example, Kansas City’s public transit agency has been turned down twice for a plan to expand its streetcar to the riverfront. But Wyandotte County, which includes the Kansas side of the city, got funding for a plan to improve a highway interchange that had been rejected under Obama.

Congress is now working on next year’s budget, and House votes on transportation spending are expected this month.

The Democratic-run House Appropriations Committee’s report on proposed fiscal 2020 transportation spending said the panel was “concerned that the department has moved away from the original intent of the program.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has explained that the emphasis on rural projects was intended to compensate for shortcomings during the Obama years.

“For the preceding eight years, before this administration came into place, a large amount of resources were going into the urban areas,” she told a House transportation subcommittee in April. “So I don’t think rural America is looking for a handout. They’re looking for just their fair share.”

When it was noted by McClatchy that states Trump won are doing well under his administration, the Transportation Department replied in a statement that it has made discretionary grants to 49 states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii has received no awards under Trump.

Since 2017, DOT has distributed billions of dollars in funding to support the administration’s infrastructure priorities and to benefit communities across the country, rebalancing historic underinvestment in rural America,” a department spokesman said.

Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, top Republican on the House highway and transit subcommittee, criticized having defined limits, such as the 50-50 split between rural and urban project funding.

“When Congress jumps in and starts putting limitations on a place, sometimes the meritorious projects lose out,” he said.

Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and senior subcommittee member, saw the Trump administration politicizing the process. “They’re paying attention to where the votes are,” he said.

Trump’s political strength rests in small town and rural communities. Being able to cite road improvements is a valuable political weapon, experts said. “This is going to be very helpful,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall Poll based in Lancaster, Pa.

“Not only can people see the roads and bridges, but this employs people,” he said. Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016.

This year’s BUILD program has $900 million to award. Deadline for submitting applications is July 15. The department must make the awards by Nov. 12. The award is not simply cash, but reimbursement once money is spent on different aspects of the project. The awarded money must be spent by Sept. 30, 2026.

BUILD is arguably poised to help Trump maintain political strength. He did well in 2016 in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountain states.

States such as Alaska, Nebraska, Arkansas and Wyoming have already received more grant money in Trump’s first two years than they did under eight years of Obama.

Bluegrass state sees green

Approved Texas projects got about half of what they had asked for under Obama, but 96 percent of what they’ve asked for under Trump. South Carolina grant winners got less than 15 percent of what they asked for under Obama. Under Trump, it’s 100 percent.

Kentucky, home to Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had six projects approved by the Obama department in eight years. It’s already had four under Trump in two years, none of them are in or close to the urban centers of Louisville or Lexington.

While eight of the states that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the last presidential election have seen their shares of the transportation grants increase, many states that voted for Clinton and are not considered strong Trump territory in 2020 have seen a drop in their share of the grant money.

California received $388 million in urban awards during the Obama years, an average of about $48 million annually. It’s received $24 million over the last two years. Washington state averaged about $30 million annually in urban grants under Obama. It got zero from Trump’s department in the last two years.

California is among the states whose share has shrunk the most under Trump, along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington, New York and Illinois, all states Clinton easily won.

The Trump administration says it employs a systemic approach to deciding on grants. It also maintains that the program was poorly run during much of the Obama administration, and the problems have now been fixed.

Obama-era issues

Reports from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office and the department’s inspector general raised serious questions about the Obama-era program.

The GAO found in 2014, the year it issued its report, that the Transportation Department “did not document its rationale for advancing 43 projects with lower technical ratings instead of 22 more highly-rated projects.” And it reported that the department’s methodology “can give rise to challenges to the integrity of the evaluation process.”

Last year, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, its in-house watchdog, found a lack of a standardized process to analyze the economic benefits from a project. Proving such benefits can develop is a crucial element of deciding what to fund.

After the inspector general report, GAO said the Transportation Department improved its procedures.

Democrats and Obama administration transportation officials maintain they did in fact use a carefully devised system for the awards.

“We had very clear standards,” said Beth Osborne, who managed the TIGER program during part of the Obama administration. But by necessity, she said, the awards process became discretionary at times because not everything could be measured in raw numbers.

“There’s nothing definitive about these projects,” said Osborne, now the director of Transportation for America, a group of civic and business leaders who promote transportation ideas and develop data. Trying to accurately predict how a project will lead to specific economic benefits in the future is not an exact science, she said.

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David Lightman is McClatchy’s chief congressional correspondent. He’s been writing, editing and teaching for 47 years, with stops in Hagerstown, Riverside, Calif., Annapolis, Baltimore and since 1981, Washington.
Ben Wieder is a data reporter in McClatchy’s Washington bureau. He worked previously at the Center for Public Integrity and Stateline. His work has been honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, National Press Foundation, Online News Association and Association of Health Care Journalists.