NASHVILLE — The federal government should find more ways to bypass state legislatures to get transportation grants directly to cities and towns, Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday.
Biden also criticized the highway bill approved by the U.S. House earlier in the day as "basically a three-year patch that doesn't give enough funding or enough certainty."
The bill authorizes $325 billion in spending through the 2021 federal budget year, but it provides money for only the first three years because lawmakers couldn't agree on a way to pay for it all. The measure would continue current rates of spending, adjusted for inflation.
The vice president drew applause from the hundreds of local officials attending the speech to the National League of Cities when he observed that federal money flowing through state capitols tends to get diverted toward the interests of governors and individual lawmakers.
"The biggest problem I have with the cities and towns is you almost always have to go through your state legislative bodies to get any help," Biden said.
Biden said he learned that lesson from a bill he passed while in the Senate for local law enforcement assistance.
"It had to go through the governor of every state, and then the Legislature and then it got divided up," he said. "If you had 40 state reps, it got divided up in 40 places. It didn't go to high crime areas."
Later law enforcement and transportation grant programs created through the Recovery Act allowed money to flow directly to communities, he said.
"You don't have to go through anybody, you go directly to go," he said. "The point is that we know the thing you need the most from Washington is certainty in the investment we say we're going to make."
The vice president said he discussed the issue with the city's new mayor, Megan Barry, who met him at the Nashville airport. Barry's predecessor, Karl Dean, was thwarted in his attempts to create a 7-mile bus route. Opponents included businesses and residents along parts of the route and Republican state lawmakers.
Biden touted the latest $500 million batch of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, or TIGER, grants awarded last week, including $20 million for a public transportation in the Birmingham, Alabama, area.
The money will go toward a bus rapid transit line connecting the city to 20 largely low-income communities where one out of five people don't have access to vehicles.
"It's going to help 50,000 people get to their jobs," Biden said.
Biden noted that the highway bill moving through Congress does not include more money for TIGER grants.
"We have to keep pushing for more," Biden said.