The Biden administration is revamping a key infrastructure grant program to prioritize projects that address climate change and racial equity.
The Transportation Department included the new criteria in its announcement Wednesday that it will award $889 million in grants to major freight and highway projects in fiscal 2021 through the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program.
The Biden administration has repeatedly touted sustainable and equitable infrastructure as major elements of its agenda, in a substantial shift from the Transportation Department under former President Donald Trump, which didn’t list either environmental or racial equity issues among its primary considerations. Last year’s grant solicitation prioritized projects that contributed to economic growth, had funding from nonfederal sources, used innovative technology, and included measures of accountability.
“We are committed to not just rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, but building back in a way that positions American communities for success in the future — creating good paying jobs, boosting the economy, ensuring equity, and tackling our climate crisis,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in a statement.
This is the first time the grants will consider climate and racial justice issues as criteria, according to the department. The Obama administration evaluated whether projects mitigated “harm to communities and the environment,” but the new grant framework elevates the importance of those factors.
The grants are considered discretionary funding, which gives the department more say in how the money is spent than it has for mandatory programs set by Congress.
The department will evaluate projects this year on whether they were planned as part of a larger strategy to address climate change, or if they help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Priority projects could involve zero-emission vehicle infrastructure or multimodal options to help people drive less.
The department will also consider racial equity and whether projects help underserved communities. Eligible projects could address barriers to opportunity, like dependence on automobiles, or previous inequities.
The program requires that at least a quarter of the funding for the grants be used for projects in rural areas. Last year, under the Trump administration, 53% of the $906 million in funding went to rural projects.
In addition to the $889 million available this year, the department said it could award as much as $150 million in previously unspent funds.
The department also announced it was launching a program for projects that don’t win INFRA grants to apply for Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans that would cover 49% of their project costs.
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