Transportation grants for the Central Valley
In eight years under President Barack Obama, California received a larger share of grants from a U.S. Department of Transportation program for infrastructure improvements than any other state in the nation.
But in two fiscal years since President Donald Trump took office, California’s share has fallen to less than half of what it was during the Obama administration, according to a Bee analysis of data from the federal grant program.
California is not alone in wondering whether the state is paying a political price after voters here backed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by a nearly two-to-one margin over Trump, the Republican candidate, in the 2016 general election.
Half of the 20 states that Clinton won almost three years ago have seen shrinking shares of money from the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) and BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) program.
They include Clinton’s home state of Illinois; New York, where Clinton served in the U.S. Senate; and Washington, Minnesota and Connecticut. Each of the six states is receiving less than half as much each year, on average as a percentage share, from the grant program under the Trump administration.
From 2009 through 2016, California won an average of 8.15 percent of the available grant funds each year during the Obama administration. In the past two years, the state’s annual share has been reduced dramatically, to an average of about 3.5 percent.
“It’s no surprise” that grants can become political tools, said Tony Boren, a longtime transportation planner and executive director of the Fresno County Council of Governments, which deals with regional transportation planning and funding. “I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with it. It’s just the nature of how government works. The people in charge get to make these discretionary decisions.”
He said he has the same expectation whether the “people in charge” are Republicans or Democrats.
“You’ve got a staff that screens these things down to maybe the top three or four dozen, and they try to make sure there’s geographic balance,” Boren said. “Then they take those to (Transportation Secretary Elaine) Chao, who I expect consults with the White House. … It’s no surprise that more money would be going to those places that favor the president.”
But how the money pie is sliced isn’t a simple black-and-white – or even red-and-blue – proposition. In nine states that Trump carried in 2016, the annual average share of grants is smaller than it was under the Obama administration. And in 10 states that Clinton won, the average has grown.
In the decade that the TIGER and BUILD grants have existed, funding applications for transportation projects in the Central Valley of California from north of Sacramento to south of Bakersfield have had only modest success in winning grants. Of nearly 800 project applications submitted by local and regional transportation agencies across the state, 36 were awarded grants for at least some of they money they requested. Only seven were in the Central Valley – four during Obama’s eight-year tenure, three in the past two years under Trump.
Rep. TJ Cox, D-Fresno, lamented the region’s track record. “I don’t particularly care about the political games, but I know the Central Valley has never gotten its fair share of infrastructure funding,” Cox said in a written statement. “No recent administration has given us what we need to ensure we have adequate roads, bridges, and safe drinking water.”
“If we’re being punished for political retribution, it’s the working families of the Central Valley who are being punished,” Cox added.
Where the money has gone
Under the Trump administration, Modesto and Stanislaus County have fared better than they did under Obama’s transportation department. In 2017, the city of Modesto won $9 million, of the $10 million sought, to upgrade a four-mile stretch of State Route 132 into a freeway heading west from Modesto toward Interstate 5. It’s the first of four phases to build a freeway connecting Interstate 5 and Interstate 580 to Highway 99.
Last year, when the program became known as BUILD, Stanislaus County received $20 million to help pay for building a three-mile segment of a State Route 108 expressway that ultimately will bypass Modesto, Riverbank and Oakdale. The project has a total estimated cost of $86 million.
The county has seen the increase in federal funding since local voters approved the Measure L transportation tax in 2016. The half-percent sales tax has given Stanislaus County the local matching dollars that are often the key to winning federal transportation grants, County Supervisor Vito Chiesa said.
“We think we have done well,” Chiesa said. “I don’t think we have been shortchanged in the last 15 to 16 months.”
At the Valley’s southern end, Kern County’s only grant to date came from the BUILD program in 2018, to widen a five-mile stretch of Highway 46 west of Interstate 5 from two to four lanes each way, improving intersections, bike lanes and sidewalks, and building a new bridge. The $17.5 million grant is intended to cover half of the estimated $35 million cost of the project.
The 2018 grants in Stanislaus and Kern counties reflect a shift in focus for TIGER and BUILD from largely urban efforts to projects in more rural communities.Moving forward, the Trump administration will follow a 50-50 split between urban and rural projects, according to legislation approved by Congress earlier this year.
Regardless of who is president, the highly competitive nature of the grant program and the limited amount of money available – about $900 million in the upcoming 2019 BUILD round – means that a community’s chances of winning an award have always been hit-and-miss. Of a total of 863 applications submitted by the state and its cities and counties since 2009, almost 96 percent have been rejected, some more than once.
“It’s a sad statistical reality. They are so oversubscribed they have many times the number of applicants for the money that’s there,” said Boren, the Fresno COG director. “In the transportation world, it’s not the best way to try to get anything built. You have maybe a 10 percent chance of success. Would you build your life on a plan with only a 10 percent chance of success?”
Under the Obama administration, Sacramento won just one TIGER grant, $15 million to cover half the cost of improvements to the city’s Sacramento Valley Amtrak station. The station, built in 1926, is one of the busiest rail stations in the nation and is also a connector with local buses and light rail. The 2012 grant was aimed at improvements to the building’s interior and exterior, including modern electrical, heating and cooling systems.
Neighboring West Sacramento won a $1.5 million grant in 2014 to help it pay for environmental analysis for a new Broadway Bridge spanning the Sacramento River and connecting to Sacramento.
To the north, in Sutter County, the city of Live Oak applied in 2016 for $15.7 million, and received $10 million, to expand a one-mile stretch of Highway 99 from a three-lane route into a four-lane road through the downtown with a two-way left-turn lane in the middle. The project, which had a total estimated cost of about $22 million, also included upgrades to intersections, curbs, gutters, sidewalks, crosswalks, lighting, parking and drainage.
Fresno’s lone TIGER grant came in 2013, when the city received nearly $16 million to restore vehicle traffic on the six-block, pedestrian-only Fulton Mall, converting it back to Fulton Street as it had been before the mid-1960s. The conversion, completed in 2017, was part of the city’s effort to revitalize its flagging downtown in anticipation of new bus routes and a future high-speed rail station.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said the success of the Fulton Street grant application likely meshed with then-Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s support for President Obama’s vision for high-speed rail. “For TIGER grants and a lot of others, there is discretion within each (presidential) administration,” Costa said. “It’s based on merit and it’s also based on politics.”
“There’s no doubt in my mind that this (Trump) administration has been punitive to California in a number of areas,” Costa added. “I’m not sure the TIGER or BUILD grants are the best example of that, however.”
Passed over, trying again
Sacramento County hasn’t sought any TIGER or BUILD grants since 2012, when its application for $10 million for improvements to U.S. Highway 50 and the Watt Avenue interchange was rejected – not once, twice, or even three times, but for the fourth straight year.
Federal funding is always hard to get, said Sacramento County transportation department spokesman Matt Robinson. But as the focus of grants shifts from urban projects to rural under the Trump administration, the county would not suffer too much.
“If grants are going from urban to rural, well, the county is kind of straddling both,” Robinson said.
The city of Sacramento has twice applied for TIGER/BUILD grants to advance replacing the aging I Street bridge across the Sacramento River. It’s been rejected twice, in 2017 and 2018.
Jesse Gothan, a supervising engineer with the city of Sacramento, said he’d been optimistic about the city’s 2017 I Street Bridge application for about $11.2 million, and the 2018 request for $25 million. That optimism was fueled by successes like the 2012 grant award for the Sacramento Valley Station upgrades and West Sacramento’s 2014 award for the proposed Broadway Bridge.
But it’s also tempered by realism. “I think there is some assurance that every state gets something, but there’s still a lot of discretion for what you’d interpret as partisan politics,” Gothan said.
Sacramento is going to try again this summer with a $25 million application for the I Street Bridge.
“I really do believe in its merits and that it’s a catalyst for development,” Gothan said, citing new construction plans for the city’s long-abandoned downtown railyards and the possibility of a new stadium for Major League Soccer. He added that the project’s “readiness” factor is also better since the city completed a federally mandated environmental review.
“It’s an easy one” for the Department of Transportation to select, Gothan said.
From north to south, Fresno’s Boren acknowledged the challenges that the Central Valley has faced in competing for the grants. “We haven’t had a lot of success,” he said. But he added that political relationships likely helped Kern and Stanislaus counties with the grants they’ve received over the last two years.
“You can make the argument that without (Kevin) McCarthy and his connections to Trump, Kern County wouldn’t have gotten that grant,” Boren said of the House Republican Minority leader from Bakersfield. “I imagine that Jeff Denham (R-Turlock, who represented the 10th Congressional District until he was defeated last fall) had some influence for the two grants in Modesto as well.”
Boren added that Fresno’s top priority for potential grants is Veterans Boulevard, deemed “a regionally significant interchange, extension and grade separation project” to replace a railroad crossing and relieve traffic congestion and create a new Highway 99 interchange in northwest Fresno. Much of the project area is in the 22nd Congressional District, represented by Rep. Devin Nunes, a Tulare Republican who has been a fierce ally of Trump.
But Veterans Boulevard has twice been passed over in the TIGER and BUILD grant awards: once in 2014 during Obama’s tenure and again last year under the Trump’s administration. There’s another application going in this summer, and while Boren’s not exactly holding his breath, he hopes the third time could be a charm. “What we’re hoping for now is that at some point Nunes’ relationship with Trump comes to bear and we’ll get that thing funded,” he said.
Costa, whose congressional district abuts Nunes’ and the Veterans Boulevard project area, said he is hopeful for success this year. “We have an opportunity with Veterans Boulevard to see if we’ll be successful on a BUILD grant, since this is the third time we’ve made that effort,” he told The Bee on Thursday. “This administration will have an opportunity, hopefully with bipartisan support from Rep. Nunes and myself, to fund this project.”
Like Sacramento County’s Robinson, however, Boren said agencies cannot rely solely on the hope for federal largesse to build big-ticket items like bridges, roads or other infrastructure projects. “We’ve got five or six different funding sources in that Veterans Boulevard project,” he said.
San Luis Obispo County, on the central California coast, has also missed out on TIGER and BUILD funding over the years. Among the rejected applications are:
- A $1 million application in 2012 from San Luis Obispo County for a Willow Road extension and U.S. 101 interchange in Nipomo.
- A $25 million application by the San Luis Obispo County Counicl of Governments in 2017 for improvements to the interchange of Highways 41 and 46 near Cholame, a notoriously dangerous highway stretch famously known as as the location where actor James Dean died in a head-on crash in 1955.
- A $12.2 million application by the San Luis Obispo Regional Transit Authority in 2018 for a new bus operations and maintenance facility for regional transportation services.
- Applications in 2017 and 2018 by the Port San Luis Harbor District, each for $1.1 million, for a project to extend a travel hoist for launching boats at the local pier.