Accessing federal funds for infrastructure projects is much too difficult, county leaders say. With reauthorization of the FAST Act on the table, they want a bigger say in how money can be spent.
Counties own 38% of bridges and 45% of roads across the country, totalling more than 3.1 million miles of pavement that require regular upkeep. That’s a big responsibility for local governments that often lack the necessary funding to complete all the projects in their backlog.
“From the moment we leave our front doors, we rely on safe infrastructure to get us to our destinations, and that usually starts with local roads,” said Corina Lopez, the vice mayor of San Leandro, California at a Wednesday event hosted by the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities.
“There’s no way we can do this alone at the local level,” Lopez continued. “We need the federal government to round out the picture and create more robust infrastructure spending.”
Exactly how much the federal government will invest in local infrastructure spending is unclear. President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders are in negotiations about a $2 trillion plan, but no proposals have been laid out for how it would be financed. Senate Republicans in particular have voiced skepticism about any deal that would require new taxes.
County officials on Wednesday said they also have their eyes on a different piece of legislation, the reauthorization of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. The FAST Act is an Obama-era measure enacted in 2015 that provided $305 billion for transportation infrastructure development and maintenance, and is set to expire at the end of 2020.
If it is reauthorized, local governments leaders said they hope that it will include new provisions that make it easier for them to access federal funding for desperately needed infrastructure projects. Tim Hens is the president of the National Association of County Engineers and the highway superintendent in Genesee County, New York, who has worked extensively on projects that he said would have been impossible without help from the federal government. “We have a very small tax base, so we rely on federal funding,” he said. “But, even still, we can usually only fix a bridge or two per year.”
Hens said that the current application and approval process for federal funds is much too complicated, citing the extensive environmental, design, construction, and engineering considerations that counties have to check off before they can access the money. “When we do this work with local funds, we’re not skipping steps,” Hens said. “It’s just more streamlined.”
Genesee County recently started a $235,000 project to paint three bridges, but Hens said the cost of the inspections required by the federal government cost $92,000 alone. “We had to spend 40% of our budget on this requirement. For some reason, our county’s bridges face the same inspection standards as the Brooklyn Bridge. Nothing is scaled down to smaller, rural areas, and when you apply that process to smaller projects, it magnifies the inefficiencies,” he said.
When Genesee County decided to fix one of their bridges themselves, the project took only a year, compared to the three-year process it would have taken with federal aid, Hens said
Carlos Giménez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County in Florida expressed similar frustrations. He said that project development and environment studies require a lot of resources from counties, and sometimes the funding won’t come through for years. “When we need a project, we need it now, not in seven years,” Giménez said. “And it’s sometimes just cheaper to take on projects ourselves, because asking for federal money might cost you more in the end, once you’ve satisfied all their requirements.”
When the federal permitting process becomes too cumbersome, many counties opt to finance projects with local money. Genesee County sold a local nursing home to a private company and used the money from the sale to create an infrastructure reserve fund that gets supplemented by a 1% sales tax. San Leandro also raised their sales tax, and Miami-Dade increased the price of tolls on their expressways, all in an effort to fund local projects.
But counties often have their hands tied when they search for new revenue streams. On average, 72% of county revenue is from property taxes, but many states place limits on local property tax authorities, limiting their ability to raise rates. Only 29 states allow counties to collect sales taxes, and of those, 19 require voter approval on new sales taxes. States also limit the amount of debt that counties can accrue due to infrastructure projects.
In the current process for accessing federal dollars, poorer and more rural counties are also disadvantaged by a system that benefits those who can provide matching funds, which are not an option for places with limited revenue.
Henson said that his county is running out of options. “Most of our infrastructure is 80 to 100 years old. We have an emergency plan for when our money dries up and we’ll have to close bridges for safety reasons,” he said. “It’s crazy that we’re planning for closed infrastructure.”
In an effort to avoid that future, county officials said they hope that a new version of the FAST Act will make the process for accessing federal funds much easier. Counties want a more streamlined process that provides direct funding to local governments through the Surface Transportation Block Grant Program. Giménez said that counties will still follow federal rules, and would welcome audits to ensure that. “With block grants, counties can decide how to invest infrastructure funding based on their needs. Those decisions are best made at the local level,” he said.
County leaders also want a stronger connection between local governments and the federal government to ensure that local voices are heard, something that strikes a chord with Senator Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware who has been a part of the infrastructure negotiations happening between President Trump and congressional leaders. “It’s a shared responsibility to deal with the $800 billion backlog of work that needs to be done on roads and bridges,” he said.