- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Biden administration has adopted new “merit criteria” such as addressing equity and climate change that state and local governments must meet to receive grants under the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package.

It’s prompted conservatives to accuse President Biden of subverting the bipartisan infrastructure law to push the Democrats’ “woke agenda.”

“They continue to push their woke policies instead of letting states focus on building needed new roads and tackling projects to alleviate supply chain bottlenecks,” said Rep. Sam Graves of Missouri, the top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

The Transportation Department issued a notice last week to state and local governments that it would be taking applications for infrastructure grants totaling more than $2.85 billion. As part of the announcement, administration officials released guidelines that had to meet to be eligible for a grant.

On top of considerations like population size and projecting financing, the Transportation Department unveiled the new “merit criteria” it would weigh when approving grants, including whether projects advance equity, use union labor or address climate change and environmental justice concerns.

The latter appears specifically designed to benefit urban public transit projects or those that “incorporate zero-emission vehicle infrastructure” over highway expansion in rural areas, Mr. Graves said.

“The infrastructure law is a massive spending bill, and when you couple that with the growing political pressure from some in Congress to spend that money as quickly as possible, that creates a perfect storm for waste, fraud, and abuse,” he said.

White House officials contend that the administration is doling out the grants in a transparent and even-handed manner. They note that while administration officials are taking climate change and union labor into consideration, those parameters do not have to be met for a project to receive funding.  

“In communities across the country, there is tremendous need for transportation projects that create high-quality jobs, improve safety, protect our environment, and generate equitable economic opportunity for all Americans,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

GOP lawmakers do not buy the explanation. They say the administration is using deceptive tactics to give state and local governments the impression that certain requirements need to be met for secure infrastructure funding.

The fight underscores the broader issues that have arisen as the Biden administration seeks to implement the $1.2 infrastructure law, which is the only major legislative win for Mr. Biden and has become a central boast for Democrats’ midterm campaigns. 

Last month, Mr. Buttigieg came under fire after it emerged that his department was issuing guidelines for how infrastructure money should be spent. The guidelines, which the White House has stressed are voluntary, in some cases were lifted directly from prior versions of the infrastructure bill that were scrapped in Congress’ bipartisan negotiations to get it approved.

Republicans say such revelations only increase the need for congressional oversight into how the infrastructure law and corresponding money are being administered.

“I don’t care which party controls Congress, every member should want to conduct oversight of how the Administration spends this money so we make sure it’s being done as the law was written,” Mr. Graves said. “That’s what I will continue to do.”

• Haris Alic can be reached at halic@washingtontimes.com.

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