Could Federal Funding Be Exacerbating Regional Disparities? A Case Study in Transportation Funding

6.14.13 | Federal funding is critical to metro regions’ sustainability and progress, particularly when budgets are tight as they are these days. But some metro regions seem more successful in nabbing this money, making one wonder, could an ostensible attempt to reduce regional and local disparities through federal funding actually be exacerbating them?

In their recent working paper, “Capacity or Equity? Federal Funding Competition Across and Within Regions,” Kate Lowe of the University of New Orleans, Juliet Gainsborough of Bentley University, and Sarah Reckhow of Michigan State University examine “how federal transportation awards interact with metropolitan capacities and inequalities across and within regions.”

Studying the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant program, the authors identify two ways in which low-income and minority communities “may fail to benefit from federal transit investment”: when a region lacks the capacity to join together and secure the funding or to receive the funds at all; or if the region does have the capacity but it fails to pay attention to equity.

While acknowledging that a substantial body of literature “provides some evidence that elections, congressional committee appointments, and party strategies could influence federal awards”—or, to paraphrase the late and very-missed Mike Royko, “The Senator is my clout; I shall not want.”—the authors argue that “metropolitan characteristics, capacities, and organized interests” also play a significant role in federal grant allocations.

Moreover, “the more diffuse capacity” of regional governance (the joint action of business, civic actors and governments toward common goals) is a factor, too. In Chicago, for example, it helped secure federal funding for the CREATE program, which aims to untangle the century-old knot of freight and passenger rail lines in Northeast Illinois. More broadly, it helped the Midwest as a whole capture $2.6 billion, or one quarter of the $8 billion in initial ARRA funds for high-speed rail projects.

(Such regional resilience is still subject to the whims of the electorate. Restoration of passenger rail service between Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, which was the first step in an overhaul/upgrade of the entire Chicago-Milwaukee-Madison-Minneapolis/St. Paul corridor, died with the November 2010 election of anti-passenger rail Gov. Scott Walker in Wisconsin.)

Of greater concern to the authors, however, was the competitive process on a smaller scale regional level. They compared the efforts of Orlando and Miami in seeking funding for the SunRail commuter rail startup, and expansion of the existing Metrorail system, respectively. Orlando succeeded where Miami didn’t, and among the reasons was that strong local support (since 1999) for creating commuter rail overcame legal and state legislative obstacles.

But “the nature of this local capacity may have meant that Orlando was better situated to fund transit projects that benefit suburban commuters than the low-income transit-dependent population that makes up a significant share of the region’s population base.” Ironically, although the region’s plans include expanding the Lynx bus system, the transit system was forced to cut 10 percent of its services because of flagging funding.

In Orlando, alternative voices appear to be absent from debates over transit (regional leaders were unable to name any consistent involvement by organized groups representing low-income residents or communities of color), and the prominent transit debates are for projects that have limited benefits for low-income residents or transit dependant citizen. The commuter rail will largely serve suburban residents who work in Orlando’s CBD; the FTA’s measure of benefit distribution demonstrates this service would disproportionately benefit those who are not transit dependent.

Minority voices were heard in Miami’s effort to expand Metrorail, but “a lack of strong regional consensus and weak funding mechanisms ultimately sunk the region’s efforts” to win New Starts funding.

In the end, “low-income groups missed out on federal investment in Florida, partially due to a lack of capacity in Miami and a lack of advocates in Orlando.”

While metropolitan capacity and characteristics “might influence” how federal transportation grants are awarded, “we demonstrate that uneven capacity across regions deserves attention in federal program design” (emphasis in the original). Indeed, local equity advocacy capacity may matter more than “within region” equity: “We propose that advocacy organizations could be a necessary pre-condition for ensuring federal investment is directed toward low and moderate income neighbourhoods—but not a guarantee.”

The concern for distribution and capacity cannot be addressed simply by adding an equity (or other) criterion, if our hypothesis holds true. Rather, the structure of grant-seeking requires mitigation or redesign. Thus, debates on the federal role and redistribution need to include the disparate impacts of programs that are not explicitly distributive in nature. Finally, researchers and activists must look not just to multiple government arenas—local, state, quasi-governmental, informal, regional and national—but also to the interaction across these forums. Multiple scales matter, not just because they are decision sites, but because capacity and action in one arena influence decision making in other spaces.

This is another in our series looking at working papers presented by BRR Network colleagues at the closed-door symposium at the Urban Institute on May 31 (full list of papers here).

Photo/ DearEdward

Comments are closed.