Omnibus Bill Triples USDOT’s Discretionary Grant Money

April 4, 2018

The just-enacted omnibus appropriations act for fiscal year 2018 has tripled the amount of funding available for the U.S. Department of Transportation to select its own transportation projects to fund – from $2.2 billion in 2017 to $6.7 billion in 2018.

When Congress banned earmarks in 2011, there quickly developed a sense within Congress of “if the legislative branch can’t select projects, the executive branch shouldn’t be able to, either.” Accordingly, the 2012 MAP-21 law got rid of most of the grant programs by which the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) could make discretionary (or “competitive”) grants outside of formula programs (and, with the exception of the high-speed rail stimulus, there were never any significant non-Amtrak grant programs at the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)). But that changed with the FAST Act of 2015, which brought back discretionary grant programs with Highway Trust Fund money at FHWA and FTA and which authorized three new discretionary grant programs at FRA.

Those programs have all been expanded in the new appropriations act, and new grant programs have been created. The amount of money available for USDOT to make discretionary grants has increased by $4.4 billion in the FY18 omnibus bill. That extra $4.4 billion breaks down as follows:

General Fund – New Grant Programs for FY18 1,411
General Fund – FY18 Program Increases Over FY17 1,764
General Fund – No Allocation of FTA CIG 1,316
Trust Funds – FAST Act CA/ObLim Decreases -136
Trust Funds – FMCSA Money for DOT-wide AV Grants 60
Total, Increase in Discretionary Grant Programs 4,414

A few items in that list need explanation. First of all, the FTA’s Capital Investment Grants number. In FY 2017, the appropriations act provided $2.415 billion in appropriations and another $118 million in reprogrammed funds and assigned every single dollar of it to a specific project (see the joint explanatory statement on page H4084 of the Record here), leaving USDOT no discretion at all in picking projects. But the joint statement on the FY 2018 omnibus does not allocate any money to individual projects, so after paying the scheduled 2018 installments of projects with existing multi-year agreements, the Secretary can pick which eligible projects she wishes to fund. So while the FY18 amount for the entire account is not that much more than the FY17 amount, the unallocated amount is $1.3 billion greater.

Second, the FAST Act provided $199 million in one-time contract authority in the FTA Formula Grants account for positive train control grants to commuter railroads, and the money occurred in fiscal 2017. Since this money was not repeated as a contract authority amount in 2018, the overall amount of contract authority available for discretionary grant programs dropped despite modest increases over 2017 in the INFRA, bus discretionary, and other grant programs. (The omnibus appropriations bill sets aside $250 million of the Federal Railroad Administration CRISI grant money from the general fund for 2018 PTC grants.)

The $1.4 billion in new grant programs for FY18 represents the $1 billion from the general fund for airport grants, the $225 million from the general fund for a new discretionary bridge program, and the $191 million from the general fund for new bus and bus facility grants.

The total amount of discretionary grant funding for FY 2017 and FY 2018 at USDOT is shown in the table below.


  • For existing grant programs, only those where a NOFO was published in the Federal Register are included.
  • The list does not include FHWA emergency relief or grants to Indian lands or federal lands.
  • Amounts are net after administrative expenses and other set-asides are deducted.
  • FY18 Amounts for FHWA contract authority are close guesstimates, not exact numbers, because we don’t yet have the precise amounts by which the application of the FY18 obligation limitation will reduce all allocated contract authority programs (We used a 7.5 percent reduction estimate).


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