The United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) recently awarded a second round of Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) discretionary grants. The concept of discretionary transportation grants began under the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) as a way for USDOT to award funding to states based on quantitative metrics for projects that advance specific transportation policy goals. At that time, most federal transportation funding was awarded as formula grants that largely lacked quantitative metrics or analysis of need.
RAISE grants follow in the footsteps of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) and the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) grants. While some of the evaluation criteria changed, the name change is more of a branding exercise. This year, 936 project sponsors applied and 166 projects, or 18%, were provided funding.
According to USDOT, RAISE grants “help urban and rural communities move forward on projects that modernize roads, bridges, transit, rail, ports, and intermodal transportation and make our transportation systems safer, more accessible, more affordable, and more sustainable.”
That goal seems reasonable. However, for the 50% of the program directed to urban areas, the criteria seem to boost non-highway projects in urban areas:
Projects were evaluated on several criteria, including safety, environmental sustainability, quality of life, economic competitiveness and opportunity, partnership and collaboration, innovation, state of good repair, and mobility and community connectivity. Within these areas, the department considered how projects will improve accessibility for all travelers, bolster supply chain efficiency, and support racial equity and economic growth—especially in historically disadvantaged communities and areas of persistent poverty.
As I have outlined previously (here, here, and here, as well) any federally funded transportation grants should have several minimum requirements. First, the projects should be related to transportation. When the Department of Education awards grants, for example, it does not examine habitat preservation. The Department of Transportation should focus its review criteria on transportation goals and needs. Second, federal grants should support national infrastructure projects. Highways, airports, freight rail, and passenger rail are national in scope. Ideally, the grants should have clear policy goals. For example, the G.W. Bush Urban Partnership Agreements (UPA) and Congestion Reduction Demonstration Program (CRD) grants had a specific focus on reducing congestion.
To determine whether the RAISE grants meet these minimum requirements (national, related to transportation, focused), we built a spreadsheet of all 936 project sponsors that applied for funding. Given that in past years, grants were overwhelmingly awarded to members of Congress on the transportation and funding committees, as well as members of the sitting president’s party in swing districts, we examined committee membership as well. Table 1 details these characteristics.
Table 1: Fiscal Year 2022 RAISE Grant Awards
|Total Projects||Projects Awarded Funding||Projects Not Awarded Funding|
|Related to Transportation|
599 of 936 (64%)
|90 of 166 (54%)||507 of 770 (66%)|
116 of 936 (12%)
16 of 166 (10%)
100 of 770 (13%)
On Transportation or Funding Committee
319 of 936 (34%)
|62 of 166 (37%)||257 of 770 (33%)|
On Transportation or Funding Committee (Senate)
33 of 936 (4%)
|4 of 166 (2%)||29 of 770 (4%)|
472 of 936 (50%)
|78 of 166 (47%)||394 of 770 (51%)|
Of the 166 projects awarded RAISE grants, just 90 projects, or 54%, were directly related to transportation. In terms of being in the national interest, only 17 (10%) of the federally-funded projects met that criterion. In fact, the projects that were not funded were more likely to be related to transportation or in the national interest than projects that were funded.
There was not a specific focus of the project. There were “conventional” projects such as bridges, airports, and freight rail projects. There were also “novel” projects, including those that connected communities, green infrastructure, electrification, and traffic calming. By awarding funding to so many different types of projects, the federal grants don’t prioritize any specific goal, such as reducing traffic congestion on Interstate highways.
However, the 2022 RAISE grants did perform better than in past years in the politicization aspect. While 37% of funded projects were in districts of members who are on the House Transportation Committee and/or Appropriations Committee, 34% of projects overall were in those congressional districts. Projects located in a district of a member of Congress on a relevant committee were not more likely to receive funding, however—a change from earlier rounds of grants. And members of the Senate Transportation (including Banking, Commerce, and Environment and Public Works) and Appropriations committees were less likely to have funded projects, than members of the Senate overall.
There may be a couple of reasons for the committee membership findings. This program is heavily backed by leadership, and leadership did receive a disproportionate share of projects, so it doesn’t matter whether rank-and-file members’ projects were funded. It’s also possible that the program has become so popular that the administration does not think Republicans will do much to change the program when they regain control of Congress. (It’s important to remember that former President Donald Trump made only minor changes to the TIGER Program when he assumed control.)
Finally, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or the bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021, was not written and passed through the normal committee process. As a result, congressional committee members likely had even less influence on the final bill’s language than they would’ve through the typical process. In fact, despite Democrats controlling Congress, only 47% of the RAISE grants approved in 2022 went to Democratic-held districts.
For comparison, our review of the 2021 fiscal year RAISE grants found:
Of the 90 projects funded with Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grants in 2021, only nine projects (10%) were national in nature. Of the 90 projects funded by RAISE grants, 50 projects, 56%, were related to transportation. The other projects funded were primarily focused on environmental remediation, economic development, or other factors. Of the projects not selected, 496 (74%) were related to transportation. Of the 90 projects funded, 41% were located in congressional districts represented by members of a transportation or financing committee. Only 15 of the 90 projects funded by RAISE, or 17%, were projects submitted by a state government
Despite the many problems with the RAISE grants, there were some worthwhile transportation projects funded by them this year. Maine received funding for improving the I-95 at Hogan Road Improvement Project. Ohio received funds to improve U.S. 6 in the Sandusky area, a major arterial. The Port of Los Angeles received funding for a freight rail bridge to ease goods movements.
But for each of those projects, there are also projects getting grants that harder to explain to federal taxpayers, such as a shared-use path in the Hartford area, a complete streets project in rural Oklahoma, and the electrification of a transit garage in Wisconsin.
Going back, at least the last three presidential administrations have failed to allocate discretionary federal grants to their best uses. The Biden administration continues to award funding to projects that are neither transportation-related nor in the national interest of federal taxpayers.
The current RAISE program lacks a clear objective. Until policymakers and political leadership at the U.S. Department of Transportation are serious about developing a grant program that uses quantitative metrics to prioritize projects that could help solve national transportation problems, Congress should consider stopping the program that has largely become an executive branch earmarking tool.