DANE EIFLING, Special to NWA Media
Infrastructure spending is cool again.
It’s looking likely that the federal government will fund hundreds of billions’ worth of projects in the coming years: roads, bridges, electric vehicle charging stations, railways, public transportation and broadband internet, among other items.
But how does the government decide which projects get funded and which don’t?
As simple as it sounds, the answer begins with priorities. And those priorities are changing dramatically.
In the past, federal transportation grants mainly focused on making driving more efficient. That gave us wider highways and snazzy new freeway interchanges.
Over time, we learned that very often, when you build more roads, you just get more people driving more miles for more traffic, more pollution and more ongoing maintenance liability. The phenomenon, known as “induced demand,” explains why planners are looking for other ideas for a better return on our public investment.
Today, the federal Department of Transportation has literally changed the equation and is looking to fund sustainable projects that do more than just relieve traffic congestion.
The new Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity grant program rates projects on how they address environmental justice, health care savings, equity and quality of life — not just the level-of-service for vehicles.
Opinions will vary about which projects should be funded and which should not. But it’s hard to argue with the math. Road projects often offer an economic upside that erodes over time as you account for safety, maintenance and environmental costs.
Meanwhile, street projects that provide space for people to walk, ride bikes and do business can offer loads of economic benefits without putting the environment, your safety or public health at risk.
It’s hard to predict what these changes will mean for Northwest Arkansas, but our cities are already going after funding for projects that take this broader view.
Federal grants could fund reconstruction of a section of Maple Street in Fayetteville to connect the University of Arkansas campus to the Razorback Greenway with wider sidewalks and a protected bike path. Projects such as Bentonville’s Quilt of Parks, which strives to connect public spaces using pedestrian streets, can make a strong case for federal dollars.
One of the biggest challenges for many of these pedestrian-oriented projects seems to be that they are often too small — too cheap, actually — to meet the minimum grant amounts.
The Razorback Regional Greenway was funded in part with a $15 million federal grant; the Greenway was selected, in part, because it was such an ambitious project. So maybe in this new era of federal funding we may just need to think bigger when it comes to alternative transportation.
Dane Eifling is Fayetteville’s mobility coordinator.