Failings of block grants? Look no further than Fresno State's failed bike trail

Donald Trump is asking Americans to consider whether the Community Development Block Grant program has ceased to have strategic value.

Perhaps the president should expand the debate: Do government grants in general continue to serve a worthy policy purpose?


A recent story in The Collegian, Fresno State’s student-run newspaper, got me thinking along these lines.

“Three years later, bikeway plans still hazy” ran the headline for the lead story in The Collegian of Nov. 29.

“In 2014,” wrote reporter William Ramirez, “Fresno State got four grants designed to help construct a bikeway along Barstow Avenue.

“Three years later, the bikeway has not been built.”

In a tight, well-written story, Ramirez told the tale of how Fresno State dipped its toe into the arcane world of transportation grants for a bikeway to be built in five phases.

As reported by The Collegian in 2014, university officials were awarded $872,000 by the Caltrans Active Transportation Program (ATP). Then came $570,000 from the Fresno Council of Governments’ Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) program. Finally, the San Joaquin Air Pollution Control District chipped in two grants totaling about $200,000.

That’s more than $1.6 million for a bikeway along the one-mile stretch of Barstow between Cedar and Chestnut avenues. This stretch of Barstow is essentially the northern border of the high-density portion of the campus. It gets a lot of traffic – students in cars commuting to school; regular motorists making their way to/from Clovis; students heading to/from class on foot or by wheelchair, bicycle, scooter, skateboard, etc.

Fresno State has more than 24,000 students. Then you’ve got faculty, staff and visitors. Barstow gets a lot of business when school is in session. No one would confuse this stretch with a roomy boulevard.

Ramirez quoted a former Fresno State official from 2014: The bikeway “transforms the university from being a barrier of commuter bicycling to being a major access route.”

Then a familiar reality set in, Ramirez wrote. Project costs began to rise. Time slipped away, further raising the bill. Integrating the bikeway into the broader transportation network turned out to be far from simple. The bikeway began slipping on the university’s priority list.

Bottom line: The $1.6 million in grants wasn’t nearly enough. A Fresno State official told Ramirez that the university put the bikeway project on hold in January 2016.

Ramirez quoted Deborah Adishian-Astone, Fresno State’s vice president for administrative services: “There is no current timeline for when this project will be completed due to funding and other roadway and infrastructure projects that are currently in the planning phases.”

I’ve come to love the word “grant” when it comes to government funding. I have no clear idea what the word means.

Sure, I can google “grant” and come up with something like: “A sum of money given by an organization, especially a government, for a particular purpose. Synonyms: endowment, subvention, award, donation, bursary, allowance, subsidy, contribution, handout, allocation, gift, scholarship.”

But experience tells me that most Americans view a government grant as magic. Say the secret words to a far-away Wizard and money appears in the form of a grant. Newspaper reporters and editors couldn’t survive if they didn’t pitch “government grant” stories to readers in such a sentimental fashion.

I decided in the wake of Ramirez’s story to get more details on those unused grants awarded to Fresno State. I focused on the Caltrans and Council of Government (COG) grants, totaling $1.44 million.

To cut to the chase, I concluded:

· It’s vital in grant applications to identify a crisis.

· The competition for grants is fierce; when someone gets a grant, someone else doesn’t.

· The awarding of a grant is a currency in itself; a project that gets several grants finds it that much easier to corral even more grants.

· Grant money can get tied up (“obligated” is the administrative term) for a long time.

· There are so many government grants floating around in the “grant industry” that no one has a firm sense of what’s going on with all of them.

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