Initial RC Awards Demonstrate Gap Between Goals and Resources

During the four-month period in 2021 from President Biden proposing his “American Jobs Plan” (March 31) to Congress making the last change in the text of the bipartisan infrastructure bill (August 8), a few of the items from the AJP made it into the final law unchanged ($40 billion to refit bridges) or almost unchanged ($25 billion for infrastructure at airports).

Most of the rest of the AJP proposals were either left out or were substantially downsized. Particularly the AJP’s plan for “$20 billion for a new program that will reconnect neighborhoods cut off by historic investments and ensure new projects increase opportunity, advance racial equity and environmental justice, and promote affordable access.”

By the time Congress had finished with the IIJA, that program had been cut by 95 percent, and just $1 billion over five years remained for the “Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program.”

The Biden Administration announced the recipients of the first year’s tranche of funding under the pilot program on February 28.  Federal grants total $185 million ($95 million in Highway Trust Fund contract authority, lopped off by the obligation limitation to $85 million, plus $100 million in general fund advance appropriations).

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said, “Transportation should connect, not divide, people and communities,. We are proud to announce the first grantees of our Reconnecting Communities Program, which will unite neighborhoods, ensure the future is better than the past, and provide Americans with better access to jobs, health care, groceries and other essentials.”

The RC pilot program can best be understood as two related grant programs. One is a capital grant program to pay for a federal share (up to 50 percent) of the cost of rebuilding or removing federal-aid infrastructure facilities in order to increase local connectivity. This program made six grants with its share of the fiscal 2022 RC funding, totaling $138.1 million, and the grants were as large as $55.6 million and as small as $5.4 million.

The other program made 39 grants totaling $47.1 million to be used as “seed money” allowing local communities to plan for future capital projects under the program. The mean (average) grant size was $1.2 million and the median grant size was $1.1 million.

Fed. Grant Total Project RC Share
Long Beach, CA $30,000,000 $69,174,000 43%
Tampa, FL $5,354,695 $10,709,391 50%
Kalamazoo, MI $12,272,799 $25,046,528 49%
Oak Park, MI $21,704,970 $43,409,941 50%
Long Branch, NJ $13,215,036 $26,430,072 50%
Buffalo, NY $55,597,500 $1,054,000,000 5%
Subtotal, Capital Grants $138,145,000 $1,228,769,932 11%
Plus 39 Planning Grants Totaling $47,090,000
TOTAL GRANTS, FY 2022 $185,235,000

However, of the six capital projects, only the last promises the kind of fundamental change that President Biden talked about when he proposed the program:

  • Long Beach: $30 million to “reconfigure West Shoreline Drive to remove a roadway barrier and improve access and connectivity between Downtown Long Beach and public open space, create a new bicycle path and pedestrian amenities, and divert highway traffic from residential streets to major roads. The project’s realignment and transformation of Shoreline Drive will convert the urban freeway corridor into a landscaped local roadway, creating approximately 5.5 acres for park space and serving as a gateway to better connect residents, visitors, and workers to the Pacific Ocean, local destinations, and downtown Long Beach.”
  • Tampa: $5.4 million to “”lower an interchange ramp to street level, restoring neighborhood connectivity eroded by I-275. The project will also provide new bicycle and pedestrian routes and establish a Community Advisory Committee to provide input, feedback, and help guide the equitable implementation of the project.
  • Kalamazoo: $12.3 million for “Michigan Avenue will shift from a four- to five-lane one-way street with parking on both sides to a two-way street with single lanes, dedicated left turn lanes, on-street parking, and bike lanes, as well as pedestrian infrastructure. Kalamazoo Avenue will shift from a three-lane one-way street to a two-way road with two-lanes in each direction and a center turn lane with pedestrian infrastructure and bus stops.”
  • Oak Park: $21.7 million to “reconstruct a deck/plaza over Interstate 696 in suburban Detroit at a point which bisects the Orthodox Jewish community of Oak Park into two halves.”
  • Long Branch: $13.2 million to “remove an at-grade rail crossing and construct a pedestrian tunnel at Long Branch Station to provide access from multiple directions to the station and eliminate a problematic crossing for passengers and pedestrians.”
  • Buffalo: $55.6 million to “cap approximately 4,100 feet of the Kensington Expressway to provide continuous greenspace and reestablish community character and cohesiveness. Community groups have advocated for covering the expressway and restoring elements of the historic Humboldt Parkway design since the late 1980s. The new tunnel will reconnect several east-west roads that were severed and enhance east-west connections with safe crossing options. The Humboldt Parkway would be reconstructed with Complete Streets design features.”

Of all those, only the last one, in Buffalo, is the kind of fundamental change in an area that was promised by the program, and it revelas the real cost of this kind of thing: a total project cost of $1.05 billion to cut and cover just 4,100 feet of expressway. This converts to a total cost of between $1.3 billion and $1.4 billion per mile of freeway covered and converted.

And note that the RC program only had $55 million to give to the project, or 11 percent of the project cost (not anywhere close to 50). Program resources of just under $1 billion over five years are nowhere close to being enough to being able to fund a significant number of projects (which, if they were Interstate to being with, were built at a federal cost share of 90 percent, not 5o percent).

And giving planning grants for 30+ additional projects per year will only heighten demand in future years for community reconnection megaprojects out of an account that only gets around $200 million per year.

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