Federal Earmarks Are Back. Let’s Make It Count.

(Modern trolleys could move up the list | Image: DVRPC)

President Biden has signaled his interest in pursuing action on infrastructure and transportation investments after the COVID aid package concludes. This is potentially a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make large transformative investments in transportation, renewable energy, broadband, and more, and it’s critical that our state and local leaders make smart choices about what to ask for.

When this issue comes up, there’s sometimes a misunderstanding that this is our chance to think up a lot of new projects to fund, but the boring truth is that the project lists already exist, at least for the short to medium-term. There’s something called a Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) where Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) covering different regions of Pennsylvania approve projects to put on the TIP list. Regional TIPs needs to be updated at least every three years, according to federal law. That all feeds into a 12-year work program at the state level, which is updated every 2 years.

Philadelphia’s regional MPO is the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, and you can see the list of projects on their TIP website, or view a statewide map of projects from PennDOT.

State government is the real locus of transportation policy in America, but routing federal infrastructure spending through state Departments of Transportation tends to lead to an overwhelming majority of the money being spent on building new road and highway capacity and lane miles, with only a small portion going to urban transportation projects that would be useful to us here in Philadelphia. For that reason, under the Obama administration, US DOT experimented with different ways of sending money directly to cities and local governments instead to avoid this problem, most notably the TIGER grants program. 

The Trump administration essentially turned that program into yet another highway program, so there’s currently a lot of interest among people in the city transportation space in how Biden and Secretary Pete Buttigieg at US DOT might carry out their own restructuring. From that perspective, Buttigieg is sending a lot of the right signals in his public statements, though the proof will be in the pudding.

Another potentially positive development for cities’ prospects in the infrastructure negotiations is the return of earmarks. After former House Speaker John Boehner ended the practice during the Obama years, passing big legislation became increasingly difficult without the ability to bargain and make side deals to fund local district interests. But current leaders in Congress have relearned the old wisdom that funding local projects is the grease that makes Congress work, and that this is the best chance for getting frontline members on board with a big infrastructure agenda.

And this is where some interesting political deals could be reached to fund some good projects in Philadelphia. There are already some very worthy ones on the TIP list that could potentially jump ahead in line if they became a near-term priority for our members of Congress. One project in particular that deserves to be on the shortlist for earmarks is SEPTA’s Trolley Modernization program—a necessary state-of-good-repair project that would entail major upgrades for accessibility and transit service in West Philadelphia, Riverwards neighborhoods, and parts of Delaware County. While SEPTA seems to have made the King of Prussia Rail project a bigger federal priority as of late—perhaps driven by the political geography of their board representation—the value proposition from the trolley modernization project is much higher from a ridership perspective, and certainly from the City of Philadelphia’s perspective when it comes to useful and economic development.

The time is now for the city to get our priorities in order for the coming negotiations, and make the most of this rare window of opportunity for major federal investment.

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  • Jon Geeting
    published this page in Blog 2021-03-05 14:06:22 -0500