Owensboro's ability to attract federal transportation funding was the subject of a high-profile and well-circulated news article by Politico on Monday morning.
The 3,500-word piece by Politico's data reporter Tucker Doherty and transportation reporter Tanya Snyder explores how it came to be that the city and Daviess County were able to land an almost $12 million BUILD grant to widen Kentucky 331 and redesignate the former William H. Natcher Parkway as I-165 last year.
It calls into question how much influence Transportation Department Chief of Staff and former Owensboro resident Todd Inman has and suggests that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has influenced transportation projects in his home state of Kentucky through his wife, Elaine Chao, the transportation secretary.
But according to a DOT spokesperson and McConnell's press office, the article isolates a handful of transportation funding projects in order to cast a negative light on the McConnell-DOT relationship. No one state, city or county receives special treatment from the department. And, in fact, of the 169 transportation projects the DOT awarded last year, just five were in Kentucky.
"I’m proud to work for the secretary, and it’s an honor to work at the Department of Transportation, especially as this administration is prioritizing infrastructure investments and meeting with people from all 50 states to discuss their needs," Inman said in a prepared statement. "Our team of dedicated career staff does an outstanding job evaluating hundreds of applications for these highly competitive grant programs, a thorough process developed well before this administration."
Kentucky is the 26th most populous state, and it ranked 25th last year in terms of discretionary grant awards from the DOT.
The Kentucky 331 project, as proposed in grant-application material, would widen Industrial Drive to three lanes and bypass a sharp curve at Medley Road across from Hausner Hard-Chrome Inc. By including a full-length turning lane and cutting down on dangerous blind spots, local officials say they believe the rural highway can be better prepared to meet future industrial and residential needs.
The Owensboro Riverport Authority applied for federal FASTLANE funding to complete that project in 2017, but it was not selected. According to the Politico article, however, Inman served as an intermediary in early 2017, helping to establish meetings between an Owensboro delegation and Secretary Chao.
But that's not uncommon, said one DOT spokesperson — nor is it unethical and certainly not illegal. The evaluation for federal transportation grants originates with dedicated career staff through a thorough review process. Teams of apolitical DOT representatives handle cost-benefit analysis and project readiness reviews. Discretionary grant programs are competitive and based on merit and how well the projects align with the selection criteria.
Selections for the BUILD grants, for example, are made in order to “ensure an equitable geographic distribution of grant funds, an appropriate balance in addressing the needs of urban and rural areas and investment in a variety of transportation modes.”
When it was announced that Owensboro would be the recipient of Kentucky 331 grant dollars, an American Engineers Inc. (AEI) representative, who had helped the city and riverport write its grant, told the Messenger-Inquirer that intermodal transportation access had likely been key — not an insider influence.
"You've literally got eight duplexes on your left going in with nearly 2,000 trucks a day rolling by," said Kevin McClearn, an AEI engineer. "You can have toys in yards and children playing near the road with commodities going back and forth in front of them. We really tried to hit that aspect of the project hard when we wrote the grant, and I think that paid off."
Mayor Tom Watson, who was quoted in the Politico article, agreed. When it came to DOT grant funding, Owensboro tried more than once and failed, each time, learning a little bit more about what the DOT wanted to see in a project worth funding. The latest iteration worked because that's how the grant writing process is done, he said.
"Todd (Inman) has just been an informational source for me," Watson said. "He’s helped me find the right person to talk to, because who wants to spend all this time on a project if it’s for nothing? We have to have the right information. The timing was right, we made our case and, thanks to the engineering group, we got the grant. I only use folks and contacts in Washington to put me in the position that I need to be in, to get the answers that I need answers for and to have a fighting chance when applying for grant dollars. Sometimes they say, ‘Well, you don’t have a chance.’ And other times they say, ‘You need to try this or that.’ It’s just the ability to have someone in the upper echelon to guide you where you need to go for the correct answers. They’re not guaranteeing you any federal money. They’re just helping."
DOT records indicate that the process eventually leading to the Natcher's I-165 designation began in 2008, well before Chao was DOT secretary before even McConnell was majority leader in the Senate and during former President Barack Obama's term in office.
Judge-Executive Al Mattingly, who was also quoted in the Politico article said he believes it accurately depicts a U.S. senator advocating for his home state and a community fighting hard to fund transportation projects that matter to real, rural Americans.
McConnell's office sent the following prepared remarks from the senator: "Every single day, Kentuckians from across the commonwealth contact me with their concerns. As Senate majority leader and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, I am able to ensure that these issues – both large and small – are part of the national discussion. Kentucky continues to punch above its weight in Washington, and I am proud to be a strong voice for my constituents in the Senate."
Austin Ramsey, 270-691-7302, email@example.com, Twitter: @austinrramsey