Last week, the Mayor submitted a letter to My Edmonds News and The Beacon entitled “The Case for the Waterfront Connector” claiming widespread misinformation and/or confusion evidenced in several articles and opinions. In response, Councilwoman Diane Buckshnis posted a comment including content attributed to Patrick Doherty (Economic Development and Community Services Director City of Edmonds) on potential problems securing federal funding for this project. Federal funding is integral to the proposed project and supporters and opponents of it should be aware of the reasonableness of the city’s expectations to gain this funding and judge for themselves the wisdom of further expenditures for this costly and controversial project.
Given my work focus, I am aware of the history behind the BUILD program that Mr. Doherty refers to in his description of the grant program the City of Edmonds would apply for to partially fund the proposed waterfront connector. The information Mr. Doherty provided Councilmember Buckshnis was very informative. Unfortunately, it was buried in a long list of comments from many others. I believe that this additional information may clarify requirements for a BUILD grand and the implications for the city’s funding expectations.
- Funding for federal Department of Transportation infrastructure improvement grants comes from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2019 which appropriated $900 million to be awarded by the Department of Transportation (‘‘DOT’’) for National Infrastructure Investments. This appropriation stems from a program funded and implemented pursuant to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (the ‘‘Recovery Act’’). Thus, this round of appropriations continues a long-standing focus on funding, in part, infrastructure investments that meet overall national policy objectives as laid out in the Recovery Act.
- The original grants were called Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants and were focused on funding infrastructure projects that would create immediate results—creating jobs to address the Great Recession. Most of these grants went to large infrastructure projects in major cities that were as Mr. Doherty describes “shovel-ready.” This was done to create an immediate stream of dollars into the economy to address the recession. Research to evaluate the effectiveness of these grants (e.g., https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2017/02/22/eight-years-later-what-the-recovery-act-taught-us/) has shown that while these grants met the short-term objective of funding shovel-ready projects that provided immediate jobs, they did not meet the long-term objectives of funding for much-needed, long-term infrastructure improvements.
- In 2018 the TIGER grant program was replaced by the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or ‘‘BUILD Transportation grants,’’ program. The change recognized that the recession was over and the focus for funding transportation infrastructure should change. Following are some key elements of the BUILD grant program relevant to the City of Edmonds.
- The FY 2019 BUILD Transportation grants are meant for capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure and are to be awarded on a competitive basis for projects that will have a significant local or regional impact. The DOT process is an extremely competitive process—that is, any and every state, local, and tribal governments, including U.S. territories, transit agencies, port authorities, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and other political subdivisions of state or local governments can and potentially will apply. Merit criteria for award include bringing existing infrastructure to a state of good repair, economic competitiveness, environmental protection, innovation, quality of life, partnership, safety, and non-federal revenue for transportation infrastructure investment. Additional information on the BUILD Grant program can be found at: https://www.transportation.gov/buildgrants/build-nofo
- The current funding ($900 million) is significantly (1/3) less than previous appropriations (in 2018 it was $1.5 billion). In 2018, 91 grants were awarded (average grant was $16.3 million). At the same time, grant competition has increased significantly. Consequently in 2019, either the number of grants that can be awarded or their size will have to decrease.
- No more than 10 percent of the funds made available for BUILD Transportation grants (or $90 million) may be awarded to projects in a single State. However, there are 50 not 10 states. In 2018, the average given to any single state was $25 million. Thus, an $18 million request by the City of Edmonds would amount to 72% of the total grant funds potentially available to the entire state of Washington. With lower funding available in 2019 the share of available funds being requested is likely even greater.
- Rural areas are a major focus of the grants in the current act. Up to half of total funds available could go to rural communities, leaving an even more limited pie for communities such as Edmonds. In 2018, only two BUILD grants were awarded to Washington state applicants (one for $14.3 million and one for $5.7 million). Both went to rural programs in Eastern WA. If we assume that the state could maintain the 2018 average of $25 million and half of that ($12 million) goes to one or more rural communities, the request of $18 million for the connector exceeds what could potentially be available.
- Although up to 80% of the project cost can be funded through these grants, actual award amounts have been much lower. This is due to the competitiveness of the process and the goal to spread limited dollars across many projects. Mr. Doherty cites a figure of 62%. In 2018, the average match was 50 percent and only 45% for grants from urban areas. The proposed connector is projected to cost $27.5 million so $18 million is equivalent to 65% of the total project cost.
- As Mr. Doherty pointed out, a BUILD grant request cannot include previously incurred costs towards the matching requirements. This means that all of costs incurred that uses the $8.55 million, the mayor states have been raised from various sources has been spent and will not be considered in the matching calculations. These criteria could change in future appropriations but for now it is the reality.
- Finally, the Mayor states in his letter that “these sources of funds simply do not provide monies for sidewalks or pavement projects.” This statement is not correct. A $17.5 million Build grant awarded to Kern County CA included funding for approximately one mile of bicycle lanes and sidewalks as part of a major road project. Another project in Miami-Dade FL included funding for additional sidewalks and improved pedestrian access as part of the expansion of an existing park-and-ride facility. A third project in Iowa included funding for pedestrian curb ramps and sidewalks for compliance with the American with Disabilities Act. For 2018, I counted 27 (out of 91) awarded BUILD grants that included sidewalk or other pedestrian-related improvements as part of a larger project.
In summary, the city has spent significant dollars ($250,000 are allocated in the 2019 budget alone) on a project that relies heavily (65%) on federal funding. However, available federal funds for such projects has decreased (from $1.5 billion in 2018 to $900 million in 2019), up to half of these funds could be directed to projects in rural areas, and federal funding tends to be 50% of a project’s cost. Finally, the grants can cover a broad range of transportation improvements and in 2018 at least 27 out of the 91 grants specifically included sidewalk improvements as part of the program.
Given this information, the following questions are relevant?
- Is this project feasible as proposed?
- Should the city continue to spend dollars for a project that may never be built due to lack of funding?
- Or should the city direct its attention to providing admittedly needed emergency services on the west side of the railroad tracks in a cost-effective manner that also addresses many of the other concerns raised by citizens?
- And should the city use staff resources to apply for a BUILD grant that serves the needs of all Edmonds residents and addresses other significant safety concerns such as on Highway 99?