Should Federal Subsidies Favor Freeway Repair Over Expansion?

Arizona officials refer to a notoriously congested stretch of desert highway running through tribal lands as the Wild Horse Pass Corridor, a label that’s less about horses than the bustling casino of the same name just north of the river. place where the highway is limited to four lanes.

With support from the Gila River Indian community, the state has allocated or raised about $600 million on a nearly billion-dollar plan that would widen the most bottlenecked 26-mile section of the I-10 on the road between Phoenix and Tucson.

But his offer of federal grants under the new infrastructure law to finish the job fell through, leaving some road construction advocates accusing the Biden administration of devaluing those projects to focus on repairs and transportation in common.

“Upset would be the right terminology,” Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said of his reaction when he learned the project would not receive one of the first mega grants from the law that the U.S. Department of Transport will announce this week. “We thought we did a good job putting together the proposal. We thought we ticked all the boxes.

Historic federal infrastructure investment has reinvigorated dormant transportation projects, but debate over how to prioritize them has only intensified in the 14 months since President Joe Biden signed the measure. .

The law follows decades of neglect in maintaining the country’s roads, bridges, water systems and airports. Research by Yale University economist Ray Fair estimates that a sharp decline in US infrastructure investment caused a $5.2 trillion shortfall. The entire bill is worth $1 trillion and is intended not only to address this dangerous backlog of projects, but also to expand high-speed internet across the country and protect against the damage caused by change. climatic.

Some of the money, however, has gone into building new highways — much of it coming from the nearly 30% increases Arizona and most other states will receive over the next five years as part of the plan. of the funding formula they can use to prioritize their own transportation needs.

For specific projects, many of the greatest rewards available under the law are through various highly competitive grants. The Department of Transportation has received about $30 billion in applications for just the first $1 billion in mega grants awarded, spokesman Dani Simons said.

Another $1 billion will be available each of the next four years before funding ends. Still, the first batch was closely watched for signals about administration preferences.

Jeff Davis, senior fellow at the Eno Center for Transportation, said it’s already clear the Biden administration plans to direct more of its discretionary transportation funding to “off-road projects” than the Trump administration. didn’t. However, with so much more money in total for infrastructure, Davis said, “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

For example, one of the projects the administration told Congress it chose for a Mega Grant will widen Interstate 10 — but in Mississippi, not Arizona. Davis said the department likely preferred the Mississippi project because of its significantly lower price. This year’s Mega Grants combine three different types of scholarships into one application, one of which is aimed specifically at rural and poor communities.

Some of the winning grants are for bridges, while others are for public transit — including improvements to Chicago’s commuter rail system and concrete casing for a rail tunnel in midtown Manhattan.

Along with the nine selected projects, Transportation Department staff listed seven others as “highly recommended” — a distinction that Davis said clearly makes them the first to get money next year. Arizona’s I-10 widening effort was among a third group of 13 projects labeled as “recommended,” which Davis said could put them in the running for future funding unless they are overtaken by even stronger candidates.

But such decisions remain largely subjective.

Defenders of areas such as the Southwest, where the population is growing but more dispersed, say their need for new or wider highways is just as important to a national priority as the need for a major city for more metro stations or cycle paths.

Arizona State Rep. Teresa Martinez, a Republican who represents Casa Grande at the south end of the hall, said she was livid when she heard from a congressional office that the administration might have refused the I-10 project because it did not have enough “multimodal” components.

“What does it mean?” she says. “….They were looking to fund projects that have bike lanes and trails instead of a major highway?”

Testifying in March before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg assured Democratic U.S. Senator from Arizona Mark Kelly that he understood the state’s unique environmental needs. highways and that his department would “not oppose capacity expansion where appropriate.

Some Republicans, however, remain skeptical, in part because of a memo the Federal Highway Administration distributed in December 2021, a month after Biden signed the bill. The document suggested that states should generally “prioritize the repair, rehabilitation, reconstruction, replacement and maintenance of existing transportation infrastructure” over the construction of new roads.

Although administration officials dismissed the memo as an internal communication and not a political decision, critics alleged that they were trying to circumvent Congress and influence highway construction decisions traditionally left to to the states as part of their funding formula.

Last month, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the memo had the same weight as a formal rule, which Congress could challenge by passing a resolution of disapproval. Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the most Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, has pledged to write one.

According to figures the Federal Highway Administration provided to The Associated Press, 12 capacity expansion projects have received funding through previous competitive grants since the memo was released. States also used their funding formula for 763 such projects totaling $7.1 billion.

As for the Arizona project, some state officials have expressed their intention to go ahead on their own if they can’t get federal money — although they won’t. don’t give up either. Considering a crash can slow traffic for miles between the state’s two largest cities, they say it remains a top priority.

McFarland, the mayor of Casa Grande, said the next request may focus on some of the other elements of the $360 million request in addition to the freeway widening – including the bike paths that tribal leaders have long sought for some of the overpasses.

“If you read the tea leaves, you can see where they are,” McFarland said. “…It’s a competitive process. You don’t always get it the first time you ask for it. So ask again.


McMurray reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer Josh Boak in Washington contributed to this story.

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