The federal government has spent $7 billion on a transportation grant program that often awards money based on political clout and electoral impact, skirting Congress' own ban on earmarks.
The state of Maine has been living large when it comes to a popular federal transportation grant.
In December, the state was awarded money from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the 14th time in 10 years, raising its total haul to $160 million. The latest round of projects includes funding for new traffic signals across Maine, new streets and sidewalks in downtown Waterville and the reconstruction of a road to accommodate bicyclists and walkers.
Over the same period, Gila County, Arizona, has been shut out. It has repeatedly asked for money to build a bridge that would provide an emergency route during a flood and save lives, local officials say.
The competitive grant program — called TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) under former President Barack Obama but now BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) under President Donald Trump — is promoted to taxpayers as a funding method that rewards the most competitive, innovative and necessary projects. Since 2009, the department has awarded $7.1 billion to more than 500 projects in every state, Washington, D.C., and three U.S. territories.
Then what explains why Gila County has failed to get funding and Maine has succeeded? Politics and power.
An APM Reports investigation of the program shows that the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded money not always based on need, but rather on political influence and election strategy.
Of the 551 highly competitive grants awarded to the 50 states and Washington, D.C., all but 15 were given to powerful members of Congress, presidential swing states and vulnerable incumbents. And the data shows both presidents took care of their regional political bases of support — Trump steers funding to rural areas and Obama awarded funding for projects in Democratic strongholds and urban areas.
The result is a system in which political paybacks are often chosen over critical infrastructure projects.
Maine's success is due to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who proudly calls the state's funding accomplishment a "winning streak." She chairs a powerful subcommittee that has financial oversight of the Transportation Department and the grant program. Collins also single-handedly fought to preserve funding for the grant program, despite repeated calls from her party to kill it.
Her influence is remarkable. Since the grant program was established 10 years ago, the Transportation Department honored all, or part, of her 13 requests for project funding, according to its records. Collins' endorsement carries so much weight that only one Maine project — a planning grant of $770,000 — was funded without her seal of approval. Every other project funded in Maine had her backing, records show.
Collins declined an interview request, but her office responded via email, praising the grant program and claiming that Maine's success is a result of the state's quality project requests, not her political influence.
As for Gila County, it had the misfortune of being represented for years by two senators — Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake — who didn't serve on transportation-related committees and who were vocal critics of excessive federal funding for local projects. That combination has meant no bridge for Gila County.
The Transportation Department has bypassed other needed projects. For example, there are bridges in Michigan, Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio in poor condition. A regional rail line in Los Angeles needs improvement, a major highway in New York requires reconstruction and a critical port in Cleveland is at risk because a nearby hillside is threatening to collapse on it. None have received funding.
The APM Reports analysis is the first comprehensive look at how the transportation grant spending breaks down by political party, congressional power and electoral politics. In addition to revealing the program as a tool of political favor and expediency, the investigation shows:
- The way the grant program operates allows members of Congress to circumvent a ban on earmarks they imposed on themselves in 2011. Earmarks had long been a popular yet controversial mechanism to direct federal spending to pet projects in exchange for critical votes. Since the ban, quid pro quos are now between Congressional members and the administration. Even Elaine Chao, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, characterized the grant program as "earmark-like" during a committee hearing in 2017.
Peter Hanson, a professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa who studies how the U.S. Senate makes federal spending decisions, said the number of grants directed to important members of Congress raises questions especially during an earmarks ban. "With earmarks gone, it may be that grant programs are now being subject to more political pressure than they were in the past," he said.
- The grants allow cronyism to the point of inequity. The APM Reports analysis mirrors the 20 years of research by Douglas Kriner, a Cornell University government professor who co-wrote "The Particularistic President: Executive Branch Politics and Political Inequality." Presidential administrations routinely reward their political backers and punish their opponents through federal grant-making, he said. However, "[W]e have a pretty intense political inequality in this country in terms of how much political clout different parts of the country have," Kriner said.
- The program is run in secret. The Transportation Department's inspector general last year said the department needs to be more open about its decision-making. The lack of transparency on how projects are ranked, for example, prevents the public from knowing whether money was awarded based on merit or politics and leaves some experts questioning whether politics is playing a bigger role than it should.
- It's a poorly run program. Department officials have failed to explain why they've changed project ratings, advanced projects with low ratings, and haven't retained project reviews. Susan Fleming, director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office's Physical Infrastructure team, said government watchdogs have repeatedly raised these issues and made recommendations to create a better system but to no avail. "We're concerned that these patterns are continuing," Fleming said. The Transportation Department acknowledged the problems and pledged to incorporate GAO's recommendations by June.
The U.S. Department of Transportation sent APM Reports a statement supporting its review process and suggesting how much Congress has influence over the grant program. "Committees on both sides of the aisle are closely involved with the operation and oversight of the department's work," a spokesman said.
The program looks destined to continue. Last month the department opened bidding for grants that will total $900 million. And despite proposing to eliminate the program the past two years, Trump has included funding for it in his latest budget plan. His reversal on the program comes in part because it's popular among key members of Congress.
The two members who control the funding of the Transportation Department — Collins and Rep. David Price, D-North Carolina — support the grant program. Price said he intends to continue funding it. "I think it fills a real need for a special kind of transportation investment," he said in an interview.
The grant funding is just a fraction of what the federal government already spends on transportation. Trump and Congress want to spend even more.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure improvements. While Trump has gotten nowhere on that front, it's possible he can now deal with a new Democratic majority in the House that also wants to spend on roads, bridges and transit. And Chao has said that "infrastructure is a subject that's especially ripe for bipartisan legislation" this year.
But some transportation experts worry that the inequity imbedded in the grant program will extend to other projects if a major infrastructure funding package becomes law. In other words, some critical projects won't get funded.
"If there are not changes made to these type of programs, it's going to be very wasteful," said Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the libertarian-leaning Reason Foundation. His organization has criticized the grant program from the outset.
He says without greater transparency, increased oversight and a standardized review process, the grant program could become a back door to the old system of earmarks, which was badly abused in the early 2000s.
Others, however, say it may be better to return to earmarks if problems with the grant program persist.
"Grants from federal agencies are supposed to be made on the merits," Hanson said. "And if we're just now going to be making end runs around that kind of merit-based decision, then the whole grant system really starts to fall apart."
The Arizona bridge project going nowhere
Gila County, Arizona, 130 miles east of Phoenix, has been lobbying the federal government to fund the construction of a bridge over Tonto Creek for more than 20 years. County officials say they need a bridge over the Tonto Creek basin because heavy rain creates severe flooding, isolating roughly 1,000 people from their community. Major flooding often causes road closures. In 2010, a closure lasted 74 days.
When the flooding hits, children are stranded from school, people can't get to work and public safety officials need to use a helicopter to handle emergencies. "They have no access to services. The nearest detour is 70 miles and it's over roads that become impassable," said Steve Sanders, Gila County's public works director. "They're basically stuck." Since 1995, four people have died trying to cross the creek.
No matter, Gila County can't score the grant. Some years Sanders wasn't told why his project wasn't chosen among the hundreds of other applicants.
But when the project was denied funding in March last year, he was told it was "down to the last cut. They just ran out of money before they got to us."
Without federal assistance, Sanders said the bridge will never get built. The county requested the federal government pay $15 million of the $17 million bridge cost. That request is more than double the county's annual transportation budget.
The ban on congressional earmarks also seems to have played a role.
In 2005 — six years before the ban — a $3 million earmark allowed the county to pay for bridge design that is still being used in grant applications. Today the county is without a funding option, and Sanders worries he won't have the political support to secure a grant. "I believe that [the earmark ban] is limiting our options," Sanders said.
The Tonto Creek bridge project is typical of how state and local communities rely on federal assistance to fund infrastructure.
Beyond politics, there's another bottleneck keeping worthy infrastructure projects from getting funded: an inadequate gas tax, which is the largest source of funding for federal highway and bridge projects. The purchasing power of the federal gas tax — which hasn't been raised since 1993 — has dwindled as projects become more expensive and vehicles become more fuel efficient.
With a ban on congressional earmarks and more communities fighting over a smaller pot of money, federal transportation grants have become a more enticing option for members of Congress.
House and Senate members reached out to the Department of Transportation more than 9,400 times between 2009 and September 2018 to request project funding from the grant program, according to government data.
But the likelihood of securing a grant is low. Less than 7 percent of the projects are awarded funding, according to data from the Transportation Department.
"Without the federal investment, [local projects] are not going to occur," said Russell Mills, a professor of political science at Bowling Green State University. "So the fact that it's a 'go or no-go' decision is based on whether or not they get a federal grant. That makes the competition for these much more intense."
Failing to secure the grants has brought real-world consequences beyond Gila County.
Officials in Cincinnati continue to try to piece together $335 million to replace a bridge in poor condition.
And Ferrysburg, Michigan, officials are about to put another weight restriction on a bridge that already forbids tractor trailers and other heavier trucks from crossing. "We'll keep applying for grants until we're successful," said Craig Bessinger, the Ferrysburg city manager.
That optimism among local officials is one of the reasons the program is popular, said Paul Lewis of nonpartisan Eno Center for Transportation.
He said local government officials prefer competing for funding, rather than winning or losing based on Congressional horse trading or through the traditional funding formula. "The program has maintained its popularity," he said. "It passes through the full Congress every single year, so that means that there's widespread appetite."
Lewis conceded, however, that support for the program is helped by the committee members who benefit from the grants.
The 'Big Four' make a big score
In December, Chao announced the latest round of grants in front of an audience of transportation officials in Washington, D.C.
Chao commended the four congressional leaders with the most say over transportation spending. Those members — Sen. Collins, R-Maine; Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island; Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida; and Rep. Price, D-North Carolina — are the top officials on the two transportation appropriations subcommittees known as THUD (transportation, housing and urban development).
But the "Big Four," as Chao calls them, received more than praise.
Out of the 91 projects awarded in December, the four members took credit for securing eight projects in their states. That's nearly 9 percent of the total grants awarded despite the four members representing less than 1 percent of Congress.
Other members of the subcommittees benefitted, too.
In 2017 and 2018, 82 percent of the members of THUD received at least one grant for their community. That's at least 9 percentage points higher than under President Obama, whose Transportation Department also steered a high number of grants to subcommittee members.
Diaz-Balart, who chaired the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee until Democrats took control of the U.S. House in January, fared poorly when the grants were awarded under Obama but is managing better under Trump.
Under Trump, Diaz-Balart helped secure two grants for South Florida. He hinted that politics played a role in the grant program during a press event announcing a $13.1 million grant for Immokalee, Florida, in March 2018. "The last administration, I begged. I pleaded. I wrote letters. Nothing," Diaz-Balart said. "This administration not only did this grant, they funded almost the entire thing. And I will tell you that is unusual."
Diaz-Balart's office would not make him available for an interview to discuss the grant program.
Grants have also been routinely awarded to communities represented by other powerful members of Congress. South Dakota won five grants since Republican Sen. John Thune took the gavel as chair of the Senate Commerce, Technology and Transportation Committee in 2015. Thune's predecessor as committee chair, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, was also instrumental in securing grants for his home state. West Virginia secured seven grants between 2010 and 2014 valued at $50 million. When Rockefeller retired in 2015, the state didn't receive another grant from the program until December.
The Trump administration also steered grant funding to powerful House Democrats. In 2018, the department awarded two grants to communities represented by Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee who served as the ranking Democrat on the committee in 2018. The department also awarded grants to communities represented by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts.
The funding, which was announced after Democrats won control of Congress, shows that the Transportation Department awards grants to powerful lawmakers from both parties to ensure the program continues. "The party isn't so much as important as the institutional position of Congress," said Mills, the Bowling Green State professor.
Transportation experts say it shouldn't be a surprise that members overseeing the grants get the added benefit of winning projects. "I don't think anyone would deny that there's some correlation there and there is some dealing that goes on," Lewis said. "The question is: Is that a good thing for the country?"
In fact, he believes the country benefits because it allows the federal government to fund large, transformational infrastructure projects instead of allowing lawmakers to secure earmarks for local projects. Lewis cites a project in Chicago that untangles the commuter and freight railroads that pass through the city. Under the current rules, Lewis said the project would not have been able to receive a Congressional earmark.
Lewis also claims the department has been fair in how it distributes grants on a regional basis.
Price, who chairs the House Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said Congress has worked to ensure the grant program is fair. For example, the grants must now be evenly distributed between rural and urban areas.
Price also said he supports lifting the earmark ban but not as a replacement to the grant program. He said the grant funding gives local communities another option to secure federal funding for important projects.
"A lot of ordinary needs that [state] transportation departments have can be addressed through ordinary programs," Price said. "I think the standards should be high."
Still, Price said he is willing to support efforts to make the review process more open and is willing to take steps to ensure the department is following the funding rules set by Congress.
Trump was against it before he was for it
The grant program was created in 2009 as a part of President Obama's larger stimulus plan to revive the economy. He praised it as an innovative way to fund infrastructure by establishing a competitive process that was open to states, cities, counties, port authorities, Native American tribes and others.
Like many other parts of the stimulus, it was criticized by Republicans. But the program managed to survive while nearly every other portion of the stimulus package was eliminated.
"We really expected it to be a one-time program, but it was popular enough with Congress and the appropriations folks that they've continued to reauthorize it every year," said Lewis of Eno Center.
That success was due to key backers in the Senate and Obama's continued support for the plan. Moreover, the need for transportation funding was increasing after the earmarks ban in 2011. Transportation funding decisions were centralized within the executive branch and members who hoped to secure funding for local projects now had to make their pitch to the administration.
But the decisions were being made in secret, ramping up worries that the department was engaging in "executive earmarks."
The criticism continues today after nonpartisan government watchdogs have released multiple reports criticizing how the grant program was being managed.
In 2011, the Government Accountability Office criticized the Transportation Department for not having proper documentation on how projects were scored and for failing to explain why some projects were selected instead of projects with higher scores. In a November 2017 report, the GAO noted the problems continued and recommended several items, including the development of a plan to evaluate proposals and document key decisions.
Another analysis questioned why senior leaders changed the scores of lower-rated projects. In many instances, no explanation was given as to how the department made its decisions.
"Our yardstick for accountability is we go into a program, look at the meeting minutes, decision memos, and come away with an understanding of why selections were made," said Fleming of the GAO. "And, unfortunately, most times we could not do that."
Fleming said the GAO supports a discretionary grant system for transportation because it allows the department to prioritize the most important projects, regardless of where they're located. But she said the department's opaqueness and failure to explain key decisions make it vulnerable to criticism.
The Transportation Department acknowledged the problem and issued a memo in March directing staff to implement the GAO's recommendations by June 30. A spokesman said the department's "grant program evaluation processes can always improve."
In 2011, Republicans in the U.S. House banned earmarks after a series of scandals in the mid-2000s.
The practice allowed lawmakers to trade funding for popular local projects in exchange for critical votes. But the system has been vilified as wasteful. Criticism mounted after $223 million was earmarked for the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska in 2004. A year later, Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California was convicted for taking bribes in exchange for earmarks.
But the lack of transparency in grant programs has prompted Grinnell's Hanson, and even some of the fiercest critics of earmarks, to suggest it may be better for Congress to end the ban instead of allowing the Transportation Department to make the decisions in secret.
He said it's better for the public to know which members of Congress are seeking money instead of relying on a grantmaking process shrouded in secrecy.
Nonetheless a bipartisan group in the Senate continues to support the program. That key voting bloc — backed by Collins, Reed, and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington — has preserved funding for the program despite repeated attempts to eliminate it.
And the senators' efforts appear to have been rewarded.
Maine and Washington are just two of nine states to receive grants in each of the 10 award cycles. Rhode Island received a grant in all but one.
Data also shows that Maine and Rhode Island have secured some of the highest grant dollars per capita in the nation.
In 2017, Collins and Reed also pushed back against an attempt by President Trump and House Republicans to eliminate the grant program. The two senators not only preserved it but tripled funding to $1.5 billion. And the president seems to have been won over. In his 2020 budget plan, Trump wants to spend $1 billion on the program.
Collins' office highlighted her continued support for the program and emphasized that Maine received grant awards under Trump and Obama. Maine's projects were worthy because it was "demonstrating good use of federal investment," the senator's spokeswoman said.
Reed's office did not respond to repeated interview requests.
And despite criticism that the program is broadly ineffective and operates in a way resembling the earmark system, the Trump administration has used the grants to help political allies and reward important voting blocs.
|1. South Dakota||$118,786,780||$135.32|
|South Dakota's success derives in part from the stature of two senators. Republican John Thune chaired the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation from 2015 through 2019. And former Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, served on the appropriations committee until his retirement in 2015.|
|2. District of Columbia||$91,638,000||$130.24|
|Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat, serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chairs the subcommittee on highways and transit.|
|3. Rhode Island||$128,550,000||$121.08|
|Jack Reed is the ranking Democrat on the Senate subcommittee that decides how federal transportation dollars are spent. The state's other senator, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, sits on a key committee that influences transportation funding.|
|Maine has secured a grant in every round of the program's existence largely thanks to Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who chairs the powerful Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development.|
|Republican John Barrasso chairs the Senate committee that oversees highway construction and public works projects.|
|Sen. Patrick Leahy is the ranking Democrat on the appropriations committee and serves on the transportation subcommittee.|
|Montana is one of just two states that has both senators serving on the appropriations committee: Steve Daines, a Republican, and Jon Tester, a Democrat.|
|Republican Lisa Murkowski serves on the Senate appropriations committee. Rep. Don Young, a Republican, has tremendous clout on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.|
|9. North Dakota||$50,130,000||$66.38|
|Sen. John Hoeven, a Republican, has served on appropriations since 2011 and sits on the key transportation subcommittee.|
|Democrat Chris Coons sits on Senate appropriations, including the subcommittee that oversees transportation spending. Sen. Tom Carper serves as the ranking Democrat on the public works committee. And former Vice President Joe Biden used to represent the state in the Senate.|
'Reward your allies and punish your enemies'
Chao traveled to a vulnerable incumbent's state at least three times to announce the awards before the 2018 midterm elections.
In April, she and Sen. Dean Heller turned up in Nevada to announce a $7.5 million grant to redevelop a road in Carson City's downtown to accommodate bicycles and pedestrians. Heller was considered the most vulnerable Senate Republican on the ballot in 2018, and Republicans in the U.S. Senate were looking for ways to protect their majority.
Chao — who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — praised Heller from the podium in Carson City, citing his stature and influence on a committee with transportation oversight as a key factor in the funding decision.
"Senator Heller has a very strong voice in infrastructure and transportation investment and so for all of us who come before his committee, we listen," Chao said.
She made trips to Virginia and McConnell's home state of Kentucky to help vulnerable Republican members of the U.S. House as well.
APM Reports found that Chao directed grants to states and districts represented by 11 Republicans — nine in the House and two in the Senate — whose 2018 races were rated as competitive by the Cook Political Report. Seven Democrats in tight elections also saw their communities receive funding.
Chao's use of the grants to protect vulnerable incumbents isn't a new tactic. It was routine under Obama.
During the 2010 midterms, Obama's Transportation Department directed grants to 31 vulnerable Democrats and just four vulnerable Republicans in the House, according to the analysis.
More recently, the department rewarded communities that played a big role in Trump's 2016 victory. The payoffs came last year.
Burlington, Iowa, and Youngstown, Ohio, are vivid examples.
Burlington, a tiny city within Iowa's 2nd Congressional District, won a $17 million grant to build sidewalks, bike lanes and boat docks. The city planner told the local newspaper that he was pleasantly surprised by the money and called the grant "a half-court shot blindfolded and making it."
Trump won the critical swing state of Iowa in part because he carried Iowa's 2nd Congressional district by 4 percentage points in 2016. The district overwhelmingly supported Obama in 2008 and 2012.
In December, Chao also announced an $11 million grant to help develop Youngstown's downtown business district. The city will use the funds for autonomous transit shuttles, updated street lighting and bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.
"This is our third try, and to all my other mayors out there: Keep at it. The third time is the charm for us," said Jamael Tito Brown, Youngstown's mayor, when the grants were announced in December.
Trump won Ohio in 2016 in part because he picked up key support in the traditional Democratic strongholds of Youngstown and Mahoning County. In 2012, Obama won Mahoning County by 32,000 votes. In 2016, Hillary Clinton carried the county by just 3,380 votes over Trump.
Iowa and Ohio aren't the only swing states to benefit from the grant program.
Trump has awarded 25 percent of the grants to presidential swing states during two rounds of awards while in office, according to the APM Reports analysis. Obama awarded 32 percent of the grants to swing states during his first two years in office.
"Constituencies in swing states get more money on average than constituencies that are not swing states," said Cornell University's Kriner, adding that his research also found that presidents tend to reward areas where their political support is strongest.
In 2018, Trump steered money to more projects located in rural communities, an important voting bloc for him. Under Obama, the grants were more focused on urban areas, which served as a key base of support for Democrats.
Trump favored Republican states like Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma with his latest rounds of grant funding, while Obama directed award grants at a higher rate to Illinois, New York and California, three states that have reliably backed Democrats for president.
Illinois, California and New York were awarded only one project each in March 2018, prompting Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, to call Chao directly and question why the nation's most populous state was awarded only one project, according to department records and Feinstein's office.
With increased polarization between Republicans and Democrats, Kriner expects greater political influence over future grant decisions. "The political incentives that have driven this type of behavior is simply stronger," he said. "Reward your allies and punish your enemies."