Government & Politics

Under Trump, KC area transit projects see changing fortunes in federal funding

Three times, government officials in Wyandotte County tried to secure a federal transportation grant to help it fix the “spaghetti craziness” of highway ramps at the Interstate 70 and Turner Diagonal interchange in Kansas City, Kansas.

Twice the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas was told no.

So people were thrilled when the county found out late last year it had received its full grant request of $13.8 million for the $30.3 million project.

“It’s going to lead to lots of jobs that our residents really need,” said Katherine Carttar, director of economic development for the Unified Government. “Honestly, we were quite surprised. We had not had great luck prior to that.”

The county’s luck might have changed because of differences in how federal transportation funding is being awarded under President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration is giving roads a bigger chunk of funding from a federal transportation program since President Barack Obama left office, according to a McClatchy analysis of U.S. Department of Transportation data.

Twenty-five of the 30 states Trump won in 2016 also have received bigger shares of the award money from the program that has shifted to favoring rural projects over urban, according to the data.

And grant recipients like the Unified Government are getting nearly everything they sought — more than 90 percent of what they requested — in the Trump administration awards. During the Obama years, grant winners got about half of what they requested.

Just across the state line in Missouri, the new Buck O’Neil Bridge project over the Missouri River in downtown Kansas City received $25 million, which was the full amount the Missouri Department of Transportation had requested for the $216.1 million project. It had been denied a request for the same amount the previous year.

Meanwhile, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority was been turned down twice under Trump for a plan to expand the KC Streetcar from the River Market north to the riverfront. The KCATA requested $15 million in 2017 and $21.1 million in 2018 for the $32 million project.

Tom Gerend, executive director of the KC Streetcar Authority, said he wasn’t surprised funding was denied for the extension, especially since the Buck O’Neil Bridge project received an award.

“It really comes with the territory,” Gerend said. “There are very competitive national programs.”

The grant program, now called Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, was created in 2009, the first year of Obama’s presidency. So far more than $7 billion has been awarded to 554 projects.

During the Obama administration, when the program was known as TIGER for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, nearly 80 percent of the money went to urban projects. During the two Trump years funded so far, nearly 70 percent of the dollars have gone to rural initiatives.

The Trump administration insists that the generous tilt towards rural projects was done to compensate for an Obama-era preference for urban grants.

Critics, however, say the Trump program has too often focused on its own version of the Three Rs: Rural, Republicans and Roads.

They say the current program is too heavy on paying for roads, while the mission to find innovative ways to move people and goods has been virtually forgotten.

“We see a problem in the direction these grants are going,” said Rep. David Price, a North Carolina Democrat who chairs the House appropriations transportation subcommittee. He authored a plan to split the rural-urban money 50-50, which Congress approved with support from both parties.

The road to 2020

The change will not dictate what modes of transportation are funded. Since Trump took office in January 2017, roads have received nearly three-fourths of the program’s grant money after getting about one-third of the funds during the Obama administration.

Bicycle and pedestrian projects won roughly 6 percent of Obama awards, but have received none under Trump. Transit’s share dropped from nearly 25 percent of the Obama-era funds to just under 7 percent of the money awarded under Trump.

Under Trump, Kansas City’s public transit agency is examining its options.

“We’re currently evaluating do we resubmit it through BUILD or do we look through other federal programs or a public-private partnerships as an alternative to a federal grant,” Gerend said.

The one-mile extension would connect the riverfront area to the core of downtown. Gerend said the project could also include a northern terminus with a transfer center to Northland bus routes and a park-and-ride facility.

“It’s an opportunity we think, by connecting the streetcar, we can activate development,” he said.

The agency hopes to finalize a financial strategy this year.

Meanwhile, the Unified Government has finally received the funding for its project to improve the highway interchange, which originally was designed for a toll system that no longer exists there.

“For the last 40-plus years, people have looked at this weird spaghetti craziness of ramps that don’t make any sense,” said Carttar with the Unified Government.

In addition to the high costs to maintain it, the current configuration effectively cut off development in that area.

The project will replace the existing interchange with a more efficient diverging diamond interchange. Carttar credited U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a republican from Kansas, for stepping in and helping secure the funding.

Congress is now working on next year’s budget, and House votes on transportation spending are expected over the next few days.

The Democratic-run House Appropriations Committee’s report on proposed fiscal 2020 transportation spending said the panel was “concerned that the department has moved away from the original intent of the program.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has explained that the emphasis on rural projects was intended to compensate for shortcomings during the Obama years.

“For the preceding eight years, before this administration came into place, a large amount of resources were going into the urban areas,” she told a House transportation subcommittee in April. “So I don’t think rural America is looking for a handout. They’re looking for just their fair share.”

When it was pointed out by McClatchy that states Trump won are doing well under his administration, the Transportation Department replied in a statement that it has made grants to 49 states and the District of Columbia. Hawaii has received no awards under Trump.

“Since 2017, DOT has distributed billions of dollars in funding to support the administration’s infrastructure priorities and to benefit communities across the country, rebalancing historic underinvestment in rural America,” a department spokesman said.

Though it will adhere to the 50-50 split this year, the department said in announcing the 2019 program that its selection criteria “gives special consideration to projects that emphasize improved access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation in rural areas.” It says nothing about urban areas.

Defined ratios such as the 50-50 are ridiculous, said Rep. Rodney Davis of Illinois, top Republican on the House highway and transit subcommittee.

“When Congress jumps in and starts putting limitations on a place, sometimes the meritorious projects lose out,” he said.

But Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and senior subcommittee member, saw the Trump administration politicizing the process. “They’re paying attention to where the votes are.”

Trump’s political strength rests in small town and rural communities. Being able to cite road improvements is a valuable political weapon, experts said.

“This is going to be very helpful,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Lancaster, Pa.-based Franklin & Marshall Poll. “Not only can people see the roads and bridges, but this employs people.”

Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016. This year’s BUILD program has $900 million to award.

The deadline for submitting applications is July 15. The department must make the awards by Nov. 12. The award is not simply cash, but reimbursement once money is spent on different aspects of the project. The awarded money must be spent by Sept. 30, 2026.

BUILD is arguably poised to help Trump maintain political strength. He did well in 2016 in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountain states.

States such as Alaska, Nebraska, Arkansas and Wyoming have already received more grant money in Trump’s first two years than they did under eight years of Obama.

Kentucky does well

Approved Texas projects got about half of what they had asked for under Obama, but 96 percent of what they’ve asked for under Trump. South Carolina grant winners got less than 15 percent of what they asked for under Obama. Under Trump, it’s 100 percent.

Kentucky, home to Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had six projects approved by the Obama department in eight years. It’s already had four under Trump in two years. None of them are in or close to the urban centers of Louisville or Lexington.

While eight of the states that Democrat Hillary Clinton won in the last presidential election have seen their shares of the transit grants increase, many states that voted for Clinton and are not considered strong Trump territory in 2020 have seen a drop in their share of the grant money.

California received $388 million in urban awards during the Obama years, an average of about $48 million annually. It’s gotten $24 million over the last two years. Washington state averaged about $30 million annually in urban grants under Obama. It got zero from Trump’s department in the last two years.

California is among the states whose share has shrunk the most under Trump, along with Connecticut, Massachusetts, Washington, New York and Illinois, all states Clinton easily won.

The Trump administration says it employs a systemic approach to deciding on grants. It also maintains that the program was run poorly during much of the Obama administration, and the problems have now been fixed.

Obama-era issues

Reports from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office and the department’s Inspector General raised serious questions about the Obama-era program.

The GAO found in 2014, the year it issued its report, that the Transportation Department “did not document its rationale for advancing 43 projects with lower technical ratings instead of 22 more highly-rated projects.” And it reported that the department’s methodology “can give rise to challenges to the integrity of the evaluation process.”

Last year, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, its in-house watchdog, found a lack of a standardized process to analyze the economic benefits from a project. Proving such benefits can develop is a crucial element of deciding what to fund.

After the inspector general report, GAO said the Transportation Department improved its procedures. Democrats and Obama administration transportation officials maintain they did in fact use a carefully devised system for the awards.

“We had very clear standards,” said Beth Osborne, who managed the TIGER program during part of the Obama administration. But by necessity, she said, the awards process became discretionary at times because not everything could be measured in raw numbers.

“There’s nothing definitive about these projects,” said Osborne, now the director of Transportation for America, a group of civic and business leaders who promote transportation ideas and develop data.

Trying to accurately predict how a project will lead to specific economic benefits in the future is not an exact science, she said.

Democrats noted that the definitions of urban and rural can be murky. For instance, the Chicago Region Environmental and Transportation Efficiency Program, which received $100 million in 2009, is a rail infrastructure project regarded as urban.

Among its goals are to “reduce delays for trains and motorists using at-grade crossings, and improve roadways and sidewalks.” That in turn should help make it easier for rural products to go in and out of the Chicago metropolitan area by rail.

In Wyandotte County, the Unified Government’s interchange project has led new development even before construction has begun.

Last week, Unified Government commissioners unanimously approved a $155 million development agreement with Riverside-based NorthPoint Development to build a 2.7 million square-foot logistics park at the northern intersection of the of I-70 and Turner Diagonal.

“The development agreement would not have moved forward but for the interchange being done,” Carttar said.

Being awarded the grant has alleviated frustration that the county felt after being denied twice for the funding while seeing funds go to highway projects that solely mitigated congestion. Unified Government officials see their project as something more than just a road project.

“We felt that this was really more of an economic development necessity,” Carttar said. “There are a lot of other reasons and external benefits than to just getting the highway redone in that location.”

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Robert A. Cronkleton gets up very early in the morning to bring readers breaking news about crime, transportation and weather at the crack of dawn. He’s been at The Star since 1987 and now contributes data reporting and video editing.
Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.
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