Transportation Democrats Urge Secretary Chao to Reconsider Controversial Changes to INFRA Grant Program
The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
U.S. Department of Transportation
1200 New Jersey Avenue, S.E.
Washington, DC 20590
Dear Secretary Chao:
On June 29, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a Notice of Funding Opportunity (Notice) for $1.5 billion in grants under the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program, authorized by Congress in Section 1105 of the FAST Act. This Notice distorts the objective and purpose of this program, and by doing so, rewrites Congressional intent.
The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program, which the Department has renamed INFRA, was a hallmark provision of the bipartisan FAST Act Conference Report. Developed through careful bipartisan, bicameral negotiations, the final product reflected a deep commitment by Members to provide dedicated Federal funding for large-scale freight and highway projects of national or regional importance.
Instead, the Notice reflects this Administration’s desire to push a particular method of project delivery, clearly outlining that projects that use public-private partnerships (P3s) or private funds will get priority over projects using traditional funding. Section 1105 of the FAST Act did not demand that States privatize in order to be competitive for a grant. In fact, Congress stipulated that projects receiving a grant under this program should move to construction within 18 months of obligation. Projects that are complicated by the additional analysis, measures to ensure public buy-in, and other factors associated with private financing may well have difficulty meeting this statutory requirement.
The Notice also attempts to reduce the Federal role in surface transportation, by stating that projects utilizing the lowest cost share will be the most competitive, citing a figure as low as 20 percent. The Notice states that DOT will “give priority consideration to projects that use all available non-Federal resources for development, construction, operations, and maintenance.” We fundamentally disagree that this program should encourage States to minimize the utilization of Federal funds. On the contrary, Congress set a maximum 60 percent Federal cost share under the program. This provides significant Federal investment in worthy projects while setting the clear expectation that States or local governments will bring a substantial match to the project.
We are further puzzled by the Department’s intent to trigger availability of grant funds on State or local policy changes. The Notice specifically states “in some jurisdictions, administrative barriers to public-private partnerships prevent project sponsors from using an effective and proven method of project delivery…the Department can help dismantle those barriers by conditioning INFRA funds on local policy changes.” In both MAP-21 and the FAST Act, Congress deliberately worked to expand State flexibility and local control over how to spend highway and transit dollars – not to dictate policy outcomes. At the same time, Congress increased Federal dollars available to fund projects of significance and benefit to the Nation. This Notice moves in the opposite direction of Congress on both fronts.
Congress also intended that all States, cities, and project sponsors with worthy projects would be able to compete on a level playing field. By setting up these policy triggers and leverage criteria, the Department is placing some States and project sponsors—particularly the 17 States that do not have P3 enabling legislation—at a distinct disadvantage before the selection process begins.
Finally, we are concerned that States and project sponsors have to resubmit their FY 2017 applications, at significant expense. The Department is sitting on hundreds of applications submitted for the FY 2017 round of funding. It is difficult to believe that among all of these projects, the Department could not find any large projects worthy of a grant award. Despite the claim that project sponsors will be able to simply modify an existing application, the reality is that applicants will have to go back to the drawing board and devise dramatically different applications in an attempt to be competitive under the new criteria. Ultimately, very few projects will be selected to receive funding, but all applicants will have to invest substantial time and expense under this exercise.
We urge you to reconsider your approach under the INFRA program, to remain true to Congressional intent, and to focus on delivering infrastructure investments that will move our economy and our Nation forward.
PETER DeFAZIO ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON
Ranking Member Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Highways & Transit
JERROLD NADLER MICHAEL CAPUANO
GRACE NAPOLITANO STEVE COHEN
ALBIO SIRES HANK JOHNSON
ANDRÉ CARSON RICHARD NOLAN
LOIS FRANKEL JULIA BROWNLEY
FREDERICA WILSON BRENDA LAWRENCE
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