House Appropriators Concerned With DOT Grant Handling

House appropriators expressed concern with how the U.S. Department of Transportation is handling its major grant programs, an issue that has been a significant area of oversight for Democrats, Politico reported June 3.

In a report that accompanied the House Appropriations Committee's fiscal 2020 spending bill, the committee said DOT takes too long with some grants, fails to move forward with others and lacks transparency.

The report also claims that DOT "moved away from the original intent" of the BUILD program, which funds road, rail, transit and port projects. The committee argues that the agency's recent awards have shown a strong preference for road projects at the expense of transit.

"The Committee strongly reminds the Department that highway and bridge projects have dedicated funding sources through Highway Trust Fund formula programs, and directs the Department to refocus fiscal year 2020 grants on multimodal projects which include transit, passenger rail, and pedestrian improvements," the report states.

Regarding INFRA Grants (formerly known as the Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program),the report said there has been a lack of transparency and that the agency has failed to select projects over the last few years for a number of competitive grant programs. The Nationally Significant Freight and Highway Projects program was considered by many to be a hallmark provision of the highway bill known as the FAST Act and was designed to provide dedicated Federal funding for large-scale freight and highway projects.

In 2017, 13 Democratic Members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee urged Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to reconsider DOT’s approach to the INFRA grants, arguing that revisions to the program distorted its objectives rewrote Congressional intent.

DOT earlier that year had issued a Notice of Funding Opportunity for $1.5 billion in grants under the INFRA program that updated criteria for evaluating infrastructure projects. As part of that criteria, DOT leveraged more non-federal funding and gave priority consideration to projects that utilize less federal dollars.

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