National Politics

Amid questions about Chao-McConnell influence, Kentucky road projects flourish under Trump

Kentucky, particularly the largely rural counties that Donald Trump won in 2016, is getting lots of help from an administration transportation grant program that has favored rural projects over urban, according to a McClatchy analysis of Department of Transportation data.

Kentucky, home to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, had six projects approved by the Obama-era Department of Transportation in eight years.

Trump swept to victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in all but two of the state’s 120 counties. And since he took office two years ago, Kentucky has landed four projects.

None are in the two urban and populous counties that Clinton carried — Jefferson County, home to Louisville, and Fayette County, home to Lexington.

Officials in Louisville, which has twice been rejected by the Trump administration for the grants, known as BUILD or Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, declined comment. There have been no Fayette or Lexington applications during the Trump years.

Kentucky’s success rate is playing a part in Democratic calls for an internal Department of Transportation investigation into whether Chao improperly steered millions to Kentucky in a bid to help McConnell, who is up for reelection in 2020.

Using emails between Chao and McConnell’s office obtained under a Freedom of Information request filed by American Oversight, a watchdog group formed after President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Politico reported that Chao designated a special liaison in her office to handle Kentucky transportation projects. It found the staffer and Chao met with a delegation from Owensboro, Kentucky, that sought and received money to widen a road.

A review of the emails suggests a close relationship between the two offices, with McConnell staffers, particularly his state director, Terry Carmack, who was in frequent contact with Chao’s current chief of staff, Todd Inman, a former McConnell campaign staffer.

In an email sent soon after Chao took office in 2017, Inman noted that Chao “has indicated if you have a Ky-specific issue that we should flag for her attention to please continue to go through your normal channels but feel free to contact me directly as well so we can monitor or follow up as necessary.”

A Department of Transportation spokesperson said no state receives special treatment and that of 169 transportation grants made to projects in 50 states and Washington, D.C., during Chao’s tenure, Kentucky received five, including the four BUILD grants. Kentucky also won a $67 million grant to upgrade roads in Boone County near the Greater Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport under the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America competitive federal grant program.

McConnell cited the statistics last week to brush off the perception that he got special treatment.

“I was complaining to her just last night, 169 projects and Kentucky got only five,” he said of Chao. “I hope we’ll do a lot better next year.”

In a statement to McClatchy, McConnell touted his success in delivering for the state, noting that the longer he’s been a Kentucky senator “the louder my megaphone has become. “

McConnell, a sixth-term senator, said it is part of his job to bring national attention to local issues and that he regularly advocates for Kentuckians with members of the Cabinet and federal agencies.

“I have advocated on behalf of Kentuckians my entire career — and this includes with both Republican and Democrat administrations,” the senator said. “As the only one of the four congressional leaders who isn’t from the coastal states of New York or California, I view it as my job to look out for middle America and of course Kentucky in particular.”

Under Obama, McConnell helped secure $14.1 million for Lexington’s Town Branch Commons, a project that includes construction of a bike and pedestrian pathway through downtown.

According to the McClatchy review, the state’s share of BUILD grants has doubled during the Trump years, to just over 3 percent of those awarded nationally.

The administration in 2017 changed the name of the grant program to BUILD from the Obama administration name, Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery or TIGER,

Kentucky got one grant in Trump’s first year. It received $8 million to improve the Second Street corridor in the state’s capital of Frankfort — a project that the Obama administration rejected three times.

The project includes building wider sidewalks, adding traffic calming features, building bike lanes and improving access to bus transit.

Chao herself came to Frankfort to announce the grant and credited Rep. Andy Barr, R-Kentucky, whose district includes Frankfort, for securing the money.

“He even facilitated a meeting of Frankfort stakeholders in my office when they were visiting in D.C.,” Chao said in prepared remarks.

“If Mitch could be here with us today, he would be able to tell you what a strong voice Congressman Barr provides the people of Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatives.,” she said

McConnell had put in a good word for the project, writing in a letter to DOT that the improvements would “support economic development in a distressed neighborhood, increase accessibility and provide functional transportation alternatives.”

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, who years ago earned a reputation for funneling money home as the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, joined Chao and Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin in April to celebrate the three 2018 projects, which included $11.5 million to widen Kentucky 331, the main access road to the Owensboro Riverport.

Al Mattingly, the judge-executive for Daviess County, which includes the Riverport, was in a local delegation that met with Chao and Inman. He said the meeting served to put the project “on the radar,” but said he doesn’t believe Kentucky got special consideration.

“When President Trump was elected, he said that rural America needed help on infrastructure and I would assume that was one of the considerations,” he said.

The Department of Transportation said Inman did not steer grants to Kentucky, but worked as a point of contact for members of Congress who needed follow up with issues, or had requested meetings with Chao. The department says he never sat on a senior review team or evaluated projects.

The remaining 2018 projects included $23 million to rebuild and widen U.S. 641 from the Kentucky-Tennessee line to the Clarks River Bridge south of Murray in the Republican stronghold of Calloway County and $25 million to complete an interchange improvement project in the Republican stronghold of Pulaski County.

Rogers at the time called the grants a “great example” of a successful local, state and federal partnership for economic development, adding “as always, it is a pleasure for Senator McConnell and I to collaborate with the good people of southern and eastern Kentucky to make this region a better place to live.”

McConnell said in a press release at the time about the Pulaski project that he “made it a priority to secure an increased infrastructure grant funding in the hopes that more Kentucky communities would be able to benefit from these resources.”

Still, the emails show McConnell did not always get his way.

Though he wrote at least 18 letters of support for various Kentucky projects in the Trump years, 14 were not funded. That included a Louisville redevelopment project and a statewide effort that McConnell said in a letter to DOT would help with highway maintenance on roads across the state, including in “various counties designated as economically distressed.”

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