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Fact-checking funding for the Waterfront Connector | Guest View

 


On May 30, The Beacon published a column from Mayor Dave Earling, “The case for the Waterfront Connector,” that claimed widespread misinformation and/or confusion evidenced in several articles and opinions.

In response, Councilmember Diane Buckshnis posted a comment on My Edmonds News including content attributed to Patrick Doherty (the city’s Economic Development and Community Services Director) on potential problems securing federal funding for this project.

Federal funding is essential to the project, and supporters and opponents 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, I am aware of the history behind the BUILD program, the program the City would use. I believe that the following clarifies requirements for a BUILD grant and the implications for the city’s funding expectations.

  • Funding for federal Department of Transportation infrastructure improvement grants comes from the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019, which appropriated $900 million to be awarded by the DOT for national infrastructure investments. This appropriation stems from a program funded and implemented pursuant to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Thus, this appropriation continues a long-standing focus on funding infrastructure investments that meet national policy objectives.
  • The original Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants were focused on funding projects that would create immediate results. Most of these grants went to large “shovel-ready” projects in major cities. They were selected to push an immediate stream of dollars into the economy to address the recession. Research to evaluate the effectiveness of these grants (e.g., The Brookings Institute) has shown that while these grants met the short-term objective of funding projects that provided immediate jobs, they did not meet the larger objectives of much needed long-term infrastructure improvements.
  • In 2018, the TIGER grant was replaced by the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or ‘‘BUILD grant.” The change recognized that the recession was over and the focus for funding transportation infrastructure should change.

Following are some key elements of this program and relevant to the City of Edmonds.

  • The FY 2019 BUILD grants are meant for capital investments in 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 extremely competitive – any state, local, and tribal governments, including U.S. territories, transit agencies, port authorities, metropolitan planning organizations, and other political subdivisions, can 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 use of non-federal revenue for transportation infrastructure investment (https://www.transportation.gov/buildgrants/build-nofo)
  • The current funding is significantly (one-third) less than previous appropriations (in 2018 it was $1.5 billion). In 2018, 91 grants averaging $16.3 million were awarded. At the same time, grant competition has increased. Consequently in 2019, either the number of grants or their size will have to decrease.
  • No more than 10% of the funds (or $90 million) may be awarded to projects in a single state. 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 funds potentially available to the entire state of Washington. With lower funding available in 2019 the share of available funds being requested is even greater.
  • Rural areas are a major focus of the grants in the current act. Up to half of total funds could go to rural communities, leaving an even more limited pie for communities like Edmonds. In 2018, only two BUILD grants totally $20 million were awarded to Washington applicants. Both went to rural programs.
  • If we assume that the state maintains the 2018 average of $25 million and about half of that ($12 million) goes to one or more rural communities, the request of $18 million for the connector exceeds what could be available.
  • Although up to 80% of the project cost can be funded through these grants, actual award amounts have been much lower. In 2018, the average match was 50%. The proposed connector is projected to cost $27.5 million, so $18 million is equivalent to 65% of the total project cost.
  • A BUILD grant request cannot include previously incurred costs in the local match. This means that all of costs incurred to date for design and alternatives analysis will not be considered in the matching calculations.
  • Finally, the mayor states that “these sources of funds simply DO NOT provide monies for sidewalks or pavement projects.” 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 in the 2019 budget) on a project that relies heavily (65%) on federal funding. However, 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 pedestrian improvements.

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?

Rebecca Elmore-Yalch, an Edmonds resident, is a transportation/local government performance research consultant.

 

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