Federal Highway Chief Urges Cities to Go After State Infrastructure Money

A sidewalk being constructed in a rural town in Utah.

A sidewalk being constructed in a rural town in Utah. Getty images / harpazo_hope

Connect with state & local government leaders
 

Connecting state and local government leaders

Stephanie Pollack said localities would miss out on major funding opportunities if they only pursue federal grants under the new infrastructure law.

The country’s top highway official encouraged hundreds of city leaders to aggressively pursue projects that could be funded through the new federal infrastructure law – even if that means going after money that typically flows through states.

Stephanie Pollack, the deputy administrator who leads the Federal Highway Administration, emphasized that point as part of an address to officials gathered for the National League of Cities conference in Washington, D.C., this week.

Most of the transportation money in the infrastructure package signed by President Biden last year will be distributed to states using formulas written by Congress, Pollack explained, so local governments should make their case for getting a share of that money from their own states, as opposed to just going after federal grants

“I’m not saying, ‘don’t apply for grants.’ I’m saying don’t only apply for grants,” she said.

Traditionally, she said, the FHWA has been “agnostic” about what states do with their transportation money once they get it from the federal government. 

But that is not the attitude of Biden administration officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pollack said. Buttigieg’s second-in-command, Polly Trottenberg, is also a former local official, having previously led New York City’s department of transportation, Pollack noted.

“The expectation in this administration is that, yes, even the money the states initially get, that just means Congress initially gave it to them. It does not mean they cannot share,” Pollack said.

While city and state transportation departments often don’t see eye-to-eye, Pollack urged local officials to not just avoid the state agencies. That would deprive them of the biggest, easiest source of funding for their projects.

“The money is in formula funds [that go directly to states],” she said. If local officials decide they only want to focus on applying for grant money, “you are walking away from the largest amount of dollars that is available in the bipartisan infrastructure law. I don’t think you want to do that, at least not without understanding what those funds are for and what you might use them for.”

Lingering Controversy Over Guidance

The Biden administration, she said, wants to make sure that the money given to states is not wasted.

“We need to make sure that money achieves these goals that the president has laid out: equity goals, climate goals, asset-condition goals, economic development goals [and] future-proofing investment goals, ” Pollack said. 

Pollack did not mention it Monday, but many Republican officials and state transportation departments have objected to the scrutiny that she and other Biden administration officials want to place on how states spend their infrastructure money.

In December, Pollack released guidance outlining her agency’s preferences in how the federal infrastructure dollars would be spent. The memo, for example, said the agency would favor projects for pedestrians and cyclists, while it would be more skeptical of projects that widened existing highways.

That sparked a backlash among Republican governorsGOP senators and state transportation departments that argued that FHWA was overstepping its authority.

In Washington Monday, Pollack argued that states should be working closely with local officials, something she said she did when she led the Massachusetts department of transportation.

“We still believe in state flexibility, but we also believe in accountability,” she said at the National League of Cities gathering, “and we also believe in partnerships.”

“Just because the money initially goes to the state department of transportation… doesn’t mean [the state agencies] can’t sit down and talk with communities, cities and counties about what they might want,” she said.

Pollack encouraged the city leaders to work with both state and federal transportation departments to find ways to pay for the upgrades they need. She told a packed room of mayors and city council members to keep an open mind about how they got their funding, because often many different federal programs could potentially help them.

The Biden administration, she said, was taking several steps to help small communities, in particular, apply for federal grants. The administration’s next budget proposal, she said, would include money to help small municipalities hire grant writers who could help them apply for federal grants – something officials in small jurisdictions say they cannot usually afford with their limited budgets.

Range of Spending Options Under New Law

Most money flowing from the federal government is reserved for bigger, busier roads that are disproportionately owned by state – rather than local – governments.

But there are key exceptions, Pollack noted. States can use their allotments of federal money for safety projects on any roadway, and for any bridge carrying a public road, regardless of who owns it.

In fact, a provision of the new infrastructure law specifies that the federal government will pick up 100% of the cost of projects for off-system bridges, if those bridges are owned by a local government. If states choose to use the money for state-owned bridges instead, they will have to provide the customary 20% match, Pollack noted.

Local officials could also use other approaches to get state funding for their projects, she said.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation did not give much money to Pittsburgh for its bridges, and then as soon as the Fern Hollow Bridge collapsed, Pittsburgh went to the Pennsylvania DOT knowing that the bridge was fully federal-aid eligible, and PennDOT is now using its formula funds to build a new bridge for $25 million,” Pollack said.

Had PennDOT agreed to fix the bridge years ago, it would not be spending as much money to replace the bridge, she argued.

“What I say to my friends in state DOTs is, if you don’t want to do it out of the goodness of your heart or because you’re good partners, just think about dollars and cents,” Pollack said.

Political pressure is another effective strategy, she added. When Pollack served as the transportation secretary in Massachusetts, she said, Gov. Charlie Baker would often tell her to fix a bridge, because the governor heard from a mayor complaining that school buses and ambulances couldn’t get over a weight-restricted span in their area.

“[Baker] did not ask me, he told me to take our money to fix the bridge,” Pollack said.

The FHWA chief also encouraged city officials to take advantage of new programs in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, like provisions for electric vehicle charging stations, carbon dioxide pollution reduction, climate resilience and “complete streets” road redesigns.

She also noted that the infrastructure law made it easier for cities to use “local hire” provisions for federally funded improvements, eliminating long-standing restrictions that previously made those efforts difficult to carry out.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.