A troubled transportation grant program that's gone through three presidential administrations and multiple rebrandings still managing to give the bulk of its award to politicized projects with little connection to national priorities or even transportation.
During its first year in office, President Joe Biden's White House has awarded close to $1 billion to states, localities, and territories through the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant program in 2021.
Of the 90 projects that have received funding through the RAISE program, only nine could be considered national in scope. And 40 of the RAISE projects that received grants last year couldn't even be considered transportation projects.
That's according to a new analysis from the Reason Foundation (which publishes this website), which also found that 41 of the 90 projects funded went to districts or states represented by lawmakers on Congress' various transportation and finance committees.
The root of the problem, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation researcher at the Reason Foundation, is that the White House has near-total discretion to award these grants as it sees fit.
"In theory, a discretionary grant process should be better because you are focusing on money on the highest and best need," says Feigenbaum. Instead, successive administrations have operated them "like some sort of personal slush fund. They're not going to do any good."
The Biden administration's RAISE grant program started in 2009 as part of the stimulus bill passed by Congress that year. It gave the White House $1.5 billion and wide latitude on how to spend it.
The subsequent Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program created by the Obama administration directed much of this funding at multimodal transit projects, streetcars, recreational trails, and other such projects that were either not national in scope or connected to transportation (moving people and freight).
The program also suffered from politicization, with many of its grants going to vulnerable Democratic congressmen in swing districts, says Feigenbaum. The Government Accountability Office repeatedly criticized the TIGER program for passing over projects that were given high technical ratings to fund ones that received lower technical rankings.
While it was created as a temporary stimulus effort, Congress has continued to provide around $500 million to the TIGER program throughout the Obama administration.
Despite Republican opposition to TIGER during former President Barack Obama's years, and early Trump administration proposals to kill it off entirely, the program was expanded once the GOP gained full control of Washington.
In 2018, former President Donald Trump's White House used $1.5 billion provided by a Republican-controlled Congress to refashion TIGER as the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program.
BUILD managed to do a better job of spending money on projects that were of both national significance and related to transportation, but that was mostly a happy accident of most of its awards going to road and port projects in rural, heavily-Republican districts.
A 2019 Congressional Research Service report notes that 69 percent of BUILD projects in fiscal year 2018 were in rural areas.
The heavy focus of spending on rural areas also meant that more deserving urban and suburban transportation priorities went unfunded, says Feigenbaum. RAISE grants have managed to combine the worst elements of both previous administrations' programs, he adds.
The Biden administration has kept a requirement that RAISE grant funding be split evenly between urban and rural areas, despite more transportation infrastructure and mobility needs be located in urban areas.
Similar to the Obama administration's TIGER program, a large number of RAISE grants are being spent on hiking trails in rural Arkansas, expanding pedestrian greenways along Lake Michigan, and other non-transportation projects.
Feigenbaum says that fixing these discretionary grant programs requires a competent president and transportation secretary who's actually interested in transportation policy.
Trump, he argues, failed the former requirement while current Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is mostly interested in setting himself for a future presidential run and not the efficient movement of commuters and cargo.
Maybe the fourth presidential administration is the charm?