The SMART grant process isn’t transparent or serving federal taxpayers’ interests
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The SMART grant process isn’t transparent or serving federal taxpayers’ interests

Taxpayers should have a clear explanation of the national infrastructure interests advanced by federal SMART grants.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 created a new discretionary grant program called the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) program. Congress created the program “to provide grants to eligible public sector agencies to conduct demonstration projects focused on advanced smart community technologies and systems in order to improve transportation efficiency and safety.” A review of the SMART program shows that U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) funding from the program often went to local projects that sometimes have little to do with federal transportation goals.

As I’ve written here and here and here and here, the idea of a discretionary grant process that awards transportation funding based on a rigorous quantitative selection process that identifies needed projects sounds promising. As a member of the Transportation Research Board’s Intelligent Transportation Systems Committee, I strongly support using technology to improve transportation systems cost-effectively.

However, the formula process used for most federal transportation projects—awarding funding based on complicated criteria that often funnel money into congressional districts represented by members of the transportation and finance committee and those in swing districts—does little to target the country’s real transportation needs. 

Past discretionary grant programs have been even more poorly targeted than formula grants, awarding funding to projects that scored merely “qualified” instead of “highly qualified,” setting minimum amounts for central cities or rural areas, prioritizing certain modes of travel that are not nationally significant, funding projects that are not directly related to transportation, prioritizing grants in politically important districts, and providing minimal information to taxpayers on why specific projects were awarded funding.  

Last month, the USDOT announced:

On March 21, 2023, U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg announced $94 million in grant awards for the 59 projects across 33 states through the first round of funding for the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grants Program. For more details on the 59 projects, see below and the FY22 SMART Project List.

Projects awarded SMART grants have some of the same problems. First, there are too many narrowly-focused local projects. States, counties, or cities, not federal taxpayers, should be funding these local transportation projects. For example, Phoenix received $2 million in federal grants for sensors for passive detection systems that warn travelers when pedestrians and cyclists are trying to cross the road. These sensors can help improve safety, but they don’t solve a federal transportation problem and should be funded at the state or local level. Similarly, Gwinnett County, Georgia, received a $1 million grant for its passive pedestrian detection system on a collector road that is not part of the state highway system. 

Other projects have little or nothing to do with transportation at all. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation received funding for a microgrid at the Cape Cod Airport that supposedly supports a disadvantaged community. But the funding is not for planes or electric vehicles but rather a new residential electric grid. This might make sense for a Department of Energy grant but not as a DOT grant. Additionally, Cape Cod residents have some of the highest average incomes in Massachusetts, raising some questions about the disadvantaged community aspects of the grant for an airport frequently used by residents of cities like New York City and Boston, who have second homes on the Cape. 

The SMART grants were awarded disproportionately to states and cities that have Democrats representing them in the United States Senate. The political party that controls the White House always has a slight advantage in the federal grant process. The Senate was evenly split in November 2022 when grant submissions were due. Democrats continue to hold the White House and Senate, but it will be worth watching to see if a Republican-controlled House impacts the next distribution of the SMART grants.

Tables 1 and 2 summarize the SMART grants announced by USDOT in March 2023 for F.Y. 2022.

Table 1: U.S. Senate Delegation Party Affiliation of States that Received SMART Grants for F.Y. 2022

Political Affiliation of U.S. SenateNumber of U.S. Senate Seats Jan. 2023Number of SMART
Projects Funded
Percent of the 59
Projects Funded
Democratic Party*514180%
Split DelegationsN/A58%
Republican Party491322%
Total 10059100%
*Includes three Independents who caucus with Democrats in the U.S. Senate.

Table 2: Most Populous Democratic and Republican States and Grants Awarded for F.Y. 2022

State Population 
Senators in Jan. 2023
Number of ProjectsProjects Per
Million Population
Percent of Projects
California 39.0 Dem81:4.914%
Texas 30.0Rep21:150.4%
Florida 22.2Rep11:22.2 0.2%
New York 19.7Dem41:4.97%
Pennsylvania 13.0Dem11:130.2%
Illinois 12.6Dem11:12.60.2%
Georgia 10.9Dem21:5.50.4%
North Carolina10.7Rep11:10.70.2%
Michigan 10.0Dem41:2.57%
New Jersey 9.3Dem 11:9.30.2%

The tables suggest several key takeaways. First, as Table 1 shows, an overwhelming majority of the projects were awarded to states with senators from the Democratic Party. SMART grant or USDOT defenders might justify that by saying that Republicans tend to represent sparsely populated states, which are not as good a fit for these transportation grants. It may also be true that Democratically-led cities and states were more active in submitting applications.

As Table 2 shows, even high-population states California and New York—ranked first and fourth in population—received far more projects per capita than the states ranked second and third in population, Texas and Florida. California and New York both had one project funded for every 4.9 million people. Meanwhile, Texas had one SMART grant project funded for every 15 million people. And Florida had one project funded for every 22.2 million people. Democratic senators represent California and New York, while Florida and Texas each send two Republicans to the United States Senate. Again, an important caveat is USDOT doesn’t provide lists of the projects that were rejected, so it is not easy to know if California or Texas’ grants reflect similar numbers of applications being submitted by these most populous states and cities in them.

The next question infrastructure advocates should examine is whether the Biden administration is funding projects that can be realistically expected to deliver results to improve national infrastructure. Not all new technologies will pan out, but the federal government should be more cautious than the private sector in funding high-risk projects as good stewards of taxpayer dollars. Yet some of the SMART projects funded in F.Y. 2022 are extremely dubious. 

For instance, Portland, Oregon, received $2 million to establish a zero-emissions delivery zone. This project does not appear to be well-grounded in real-world transportation conditions. Most commercial freight vehicles are on the road for about 10 years, and electric trucks constitute less than one percent of the market right now. Portland wants to eventually ban vehicles with internal combustion engines from its Pearl District, but how exactly will suppliers deliver large, heavy items? Will this increase costs? And won’t those costs be passed on to consumers? 

Another curious recipient of a SMART grant was the Accomack-Northampton Planning District on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, which received $2 million to use drone technology to deliver medical supplies. Drones have a limit on what they can carry. A drone can carry medication but couldn’t deliver an oxygen tank or a wheelchair today. That doesn’t mean drones won’t be able to deliver medications from private pharmacies in the future, but the government shouldn’t be funding drones for this use. And since it is funding drones with this federal grant, other industries, like the trucking industry, might wonder why the government is not also subsidizing it to deliver medical supplies.

Similar to other discretionary grants, the U.S. Department of Transportation does not provide any information to either taxpayers or the applicants themselves about why grant applications were not funded. The one time that federal discretionary grants were examined by the Government Accountability Office, the GAO critically reported that USDOT was funding projects based on political desires. USDOT has claimed that explaining exactly how grant projects are chosen and funded would cause applicants to game the system. But in an effective process, applicants would understand the SMART grant guidelines, and taxpayers would have a clear explanation of the national infrastructure interests advanced by funding them.