State departments of transportation are in line to receive substantial federal payments this year to help them cover costs to repair federal-aid roads and bridges that have been damaged by natural disasters or other emergencies.
That's because Congress in its Bipartisan Budget Act, which became law Feb. 9, included $1.374 billion for Federal Highway Administration's "emergency relief" account. The agency taps what it calls the ER funds to help states pay both for quick repairs in the wake of current disasters and to reimburse DOTs for eventual expenses that develop well after those emergencies – including costs that may occur for years later.
The FHWA can disburse the funds quickly once it confirms that the submitted costs qualify.
As an example, on April 6, 2017, one of the early major actions that USDOT Secretary Elaine Chao took was to approve $768.2 million in accrued reimbursement requests for emergency repairs to roads and bridges in 40 states.
That included $670.3 million that went directly to state agencies for emergencies dating back to 2009, and $97.9 million to other federal agencies to damages to roads they own from events dating back to 2010.
And on Nov. 22, 2017, the FHWA allocated about $467 million to state DOTs for qualifying expenses from events back to 2004, plus $52.5 million to federal land management agencies for repair costs from emergencies dating to 2010.
That second large-scale ER funding release last year followed an Oct. 31 letter to Chao from Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, urging the secretary to quickly release more reimbursements.
He wrote that there was at least a $1.76 billion backlog of qualified ER needs – not counting the repair bills to come as a result of the devastating late-summer hurricanes and autumn western wildfires – and the FHWA account then had an unspent balance of $911 million. "I urge you to act swiftly to distribute funding and reduce the backlog" of emergency repair needs, DeFazio told Chao.
In all, those two major distributions of accrued reimbursements totaled $1.287 billion in 2017, which was in addition to quick-release funds the FHWA made available to several states and territories after major storms struck last year.
The speed with which the USDOT can make those allocations also contrasts with the long evaluation periods the department requires to award new project grants under its TIGER and INFRA programs.
For instance, the USDOT on March 9 announced the winners of nearly $500 million in competitive TIGER grants for the fiscal year that ended last September, and Chao has said the department may take until June to award about $710 million in last year's INFRA grants as part of a combined 2017-2018 grant round that will total an expected $1.56 billion.
Congress in its omnibus appropriations measure voted last month to triple the TIGER funding pool for 2018 to $1.5 billion, and lawmakers included language requiring the USDOT to act along a specified timeline. The congressionally mandated schedule would have the department issue a notice of funding availability by May 22, receive all grant applications by Aug. 20 and announce grant recipients by Dec. 18.
Meanwhile, during the period that the USDOT was moving through its grant process in the past year it was able to make two large ER disbursements for accrued FHWA reimbursement requests along with several smaller quick-release awards.
And the FHWA deployed a new mobile device software application in recent years that can help state DOT crews make much faster damage assessments to speed up the reimbursement process. (See related story in Nation section.)
The emergency relief funds can also help pay for a wide range of projects.
Although the program generally requires DOTs to use the money to restore a bridge or road to its condition prior to an event that damaged it, rather than pay for a "betterment," the FHWA in a January 2017 fact sheet said the funds can also be used under certain circumstances to rebuild infrastructure in a manner that can prevent recurring damage from future weather events.
It said a project that upgrades a damaged road to current standards is permissible, as is one that uses updated official rainfall data to better reflect modern weather effects and flood risks.
The FHWA said if economic analysis shows that a change in the roadway would save the agency money by reducing or eliminating the need for future repairs, the ER funds can go for such changes as raising the roadbed, relocating it, bridging a low-lying section that might frequently flood and replacing culverts with bridges.
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