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The U.S. Department of Transportation revealed the funding recipients on Thursday. Millions of dollars will go to cover costs like expanding truck parking, bridge and highway improvements and an interstate teardown.
The Biden administration will spend $1.5 billion in freight-related grants to improve produce distribution in New York City, give truckers a place to park for the night in Florida and Tennessee, alleviate freight rail bottlenecks in Chicago, make it easier for goods to cross the U.S.-Mexican border and remove a much-maligned freeway in downtown Detroit.
The U.S. Department of Transportation selected 26 projects in 22 states and Puerto Rico in this year’s round of INFRA grants, which are designated for freight and multimodal projects of national significance. Demand for the money far outstrips the amount available, even after last year’s infrastructure law increased available funds by more than 50%. The department received more than 250 applications for this year’s grants, with a requested amount of $26.5 billion.
The high demand and flexible legal requirements gave the Biden administration considerable leeway in the criteria it used to evaluate projects. White House infrastructure advisor Mitch Landrieu said the administration put a special emphasis on helping rural areas, which he said will receive 43% of this year’s funding.
“All of these projects will make the lives [of folks] a lot easier by improving the safety efficiency and reliability of transportation systems across rural and urban areas,” Landrieu told reporters Wednesday.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who is in Detroit to visit the North American International Auto Show, was scheduled to appear with Michigan officials Thursday to announce the awarding of $104 million to convert Interstate 375 in downtown Detroit into a slower-moving boulevard.
The project carries symbolic importance for the Biden administration, which has promoted the idea of using new federal money to address racial injustices caused by the placement of infrastructure in the past. The construction of Interstate 375 is one of the main factors that led to the destruction of the prosperous Black Bottom neighborhood in Detroit, and it dislocated 130,000 people.
Converting the highway into a boulevard will improve safety for residents, with wider sidewalks, new bike lanes and technological improvements, Landrieu said. “And it will contribute to new economic development, the building of generational wealth, jobs and new businesses,” he added.
Significantly, the project did not get its funding from a separate program in the infrastructure law known as Reconnecting Communities, which also helps communities tear down urban highways and other isolating infrastructure. Many cities are interested in the idea, but Reconnecting Communities only has $1 billion available over the next five years.
“One of the things [Buttigieg] has been very keen on is that Reconnecting Communities is not just a program, it is a principle,” said Chris Coes, the USDOT’s assistant secretary for transportation policy. “Through all of our bipartisan infrastructure programs, particularly our discretionary programs, we’re looking for ways we can really reimagine and rethink our infrastructure.”
Many business-related groups, though, have been wary of the Biden administration’s focus on social goals as it distributes awards for megaprojects. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and many road-building groups called on the administration this spring to focus its efforts on moving freight.
Several of the projects announced by the administration on Wednesday are aimed at delivering goods faster. For example:
- Highways: Federal officials are sending $100 million to North Carolina to widen Interstate 85 west of Charlotte from six lanes to eight lanes. Rhode Island is getting $82.5 million to rehabilitate the Newport Pell Bridge, a suspension bridge that carries Route 138 over the Narragansett Bay. Colorado received $100 million to improve Interstate 70 through the Rocky Mountains, while Wisconsin is getting $80 million to replace a major interstate bridge north of Madison.
- Truck parking: The Florida Department of Transportation will receive $15 million to build a new truck parking facility with 120 spaces between Tampa and Orlando. “By providing reliable parking capacity, the project reduces time drivers spend searching for commercial vehicle parking, making supply chain movement more efficient,” federal transportation officials said in a release. Tennessee landed $22.6 million to build a 125-space parking facility for trucks, along with nearby bridge work, along Interstate 40.
- Food warehousing: The administration awarded $110 million to upgrade the Hunt’s Point produce market’s facility, which handles 25% of fruits and vegetables destined for New York City. “The project will boost the economy by improving one of the largest food distribution centers in the country by widening and separating vehicular, truck, rail and pedestrian circulation and clearly establishing and expanding truck queuing and parking areas within the facility,” the Transportation Department explained. It would also eliminate the need for many of the diesel-powered generators that now keep the produce cool at the site.
- Freight railroads: Railroads in Chicago will get $70 million to replace and upgrade a 1.9-mile segment of elevated rail lines that are a chokepoint in the national rail system. “Currently, most trains spend up to one hour to traverse the limits of this project. With the completion of this project trains are expected to pass through this segment in as little as 10 minutes,” supporters of the project wrote.
- Border improvements: Three border crossings qualified for INFRA grants. The California Department of Transportation took one of the largest grants, with a $150 million project to build a new port of entry in San Diego County that will alleviate congestion at current crossings. New Mexico was awarded $45 million to improve a highway leading to the recently expanded land crossing at Santa Teresa. The city of McAllen, Texas qualified for $25 million to build commercial inspection facilities at the Anzaldúas Land Port of Entry.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.