Tiger Grants: Road Work Ahead?

Tags: Transportation Infrastructure, Legislation, Public Policy, and Regulations

A third round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) stimulus, and arbitrary Department of Transportation distributions, demonstrate a long overdue need for U.S. freight transportation policy.

It's still too early to tell if the U.S. Department of Transportation's Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) earmarks have had a marked impact on the United States' economic well-being—the program's stated objective. But the DOT's recent announcement of 2011 grantees does prove one thing: its TIGER stripes haven't changed.

What has now become an annual mega-millions lottery for regional, state, and local jurisdictions across the country began almost three years ago with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Title XII of the legislation appropriated money for supplementary discretionary grants "awarded on a competitive basis for capital investments in surface transportation projects that will have a significant impact on the nation, a metropolitan area, or a region."

TIGER's objective was to help finance "shovel-ready" projects that demonstrate substantial returns on investment—and do it transparently. To that end, the DOT has been very clear about its intentions.

Announcing a "sea change" at the 2010 National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C., U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood stated: "People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.

"We are integrating the needs of bicyclists in federally funded road projects," La Hood continued. "We are discouraging transportation investments that negatively affect cyclists and pedestrians. And we are encouraging investments that go beyond the minimum requirements and provide facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians of all ages and abilities."

Over the course of the past three years and three separate rounds of TIGER distributions, there has been a clear skew toward public transit projects and Main Street makeovers that favor environmental sustainability and non-motorized accessibility. The context for this decision-making, given the DOT and Secretary LaHood's public posturing and prioritizing of "ped and pedal" provisions, leaves little doubt as to its objective.

In TIGER I and II, the DOT split approximately $2 billion between 93 unique projects. Of those grants, 45 were passenger-specific, 27 were dedicated to freight infrastructure, and 21 accounted for dual-use plans that served both passenger and freight interests, according to Inbound Logistics' research. (See chart below.)

An Eye on the TIGER

Since the first round of TIGER stimulus was awarded in February 2010, the DOT has doled out more than $2 billion for transportation infrastructure improvement projects. While freight-specific projects pulled in approximately one-third of total capital outlay in the first two grant rollouts, respectively, that percentage dipped to 26 percent in TIGER III, according to Inbound Logistics research.

Source: U.S Department of Transportation

In terms of funding, passenger transit projects collected $940 million (47 percent) compared to $689 million (35 percent) for freight. The remaining 18 percent of capital was distributed for dual-use purposes.

To the DOT's credit, in its initial TIGER I outlay, $105 million was allocated to the Crescent Corridor Intermodal Freight Rail Project in Tennessee and Alabama, and $100 million to Illinois' CREATE Program. These two freight-specific efforts remain the only projects that surpassed the $100-million mark. But those are two exceptions.

Since TIGER I, freight transport spend has gradually declined, and the latest round of projects shows more of the same. Of the 46 grants totaling $511 million, 21 ($211 million) are passenger-specific, 11 ($134 million) focus on freight, and 14 ($167 million) are dual-purpose. Freight-specific grants received 26 percent of total capital, down nine percent compared to TIGER II.

Favorable Reactions

While the imbalance in capital distributions is clear, reactions from various transportation authorities on both sides have been mostly positive.

The DOT's official press release announcing TIGER III winners recognized that of the 46 projects, "18 were devoted to freight or had a strong freight component accounting for more than $232 million of the total $511 distributed through the grant program." (Note: These figures do not match IL's research.)

The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a Washington, D.C., non-profit aimed at creating a nationwide network of pedestrian and bicycle trails from obsolete railroad grades, celebrated the DOT's commitment to non-motorized infrastructure projects. Of the grants allocated, 22 incorporate some aspect of bike and pedestrian accessibility, and nine make cyclists or pedestrians the primary beneficiary, according to the Conservancy's calculation.

Compared to both TIGER I and TIGER II, where 15 projects provided requirements for bicycle and pedestrian access, respectively, according to IL's research, the third round of grants reveals a marked increase.

On the freight side, a statement issued by the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors (CAGTC), a beltway lobby that supports intermodal transport and trade, similarly lauded the successes of five members that received TIGER funding. Its press release was titled "Freight Projects Compete Well in TIGER III."

While acknowledging some concerns, especially in terms of oversight, CAGTC Executive Director Leslie Blakey says TIGER is a step in the right direction.

"TIGER is the first instance where freight has been targeted. Until it came along, there was no funding for any type of transportation apart from projects of regional or national significance," she says. "So we consider it a positive that it has essentially become a permanent program and that freight has captured a great deal of money, especially in TIGER I, less so in TIGER II and III."

There's no discounting the accomplishment of TIGER recipients that have successfully competed for transportation funding, or even the DOT's accounting of what it believes to be an accurate assessment of capital distribution. These perspectives are entirely subjective.

There is an argument to be made, however, for whether or not TIGER monies are alleviating an obvious blight within the U.S. transportation system—a lack of freight infrastructure vision and policy—and whether the DOT is capable of making these decisions autonomously.

The DOT's TIGER grant evaluation criteria include four factors: jobs creation and economic stimulus; innovation and partnership; project-specific criteria; and long-term outcomes. In addition, the DOT acknowledges its own accountability with one notable bullet point: "Transparency of process: Program may be audited by Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the DOT Inspector General, or others."

To date, at least publicly and transparently, none of those options has been tested.

Special Interests Compete with Best Interests

The DOT's perspective on transportation investment and development has been well-publicized. To a certain degree, its emphasis on sustainable transport solutions is laudable in a much larger world where anything goes. But the tenor of TIGER decisions and distributions thus far has been largely anti-utilitarian—for the benefit of the greater good.

In TIGER II, the DOT committed $127.2 million to 17 projects considered rural—though how it defines "rural" remains elusive. In this latest go-round, $146.6 million was allocated to 20 rural grantees. And, as another concession, TIGER grants were awarded to four Indian reservations.

Beyond that, the DOT's judgments demonstrate that mitigating inequities between rural and urban investment is more important than balancing freight and passenger transport needs—and that projects may not be evaluated on their individual merits, but rather within the framework of pre-determined conditions.

The DOT, for example, gifted $1 million to the far western native community of St. Michael's, Alaska, formerly a Russian trading post and currently a subsistence village, so it can improve four miles of local roads and enhance pedestrian accessibility over environmentally sensitive wetlands.

In fairness to the DOT, the total project cost is $8.6 million, so the federal contribution is a drop in the bucket, and the lowest of all TIGER III allocations. In fact, the majority of rural awards fall below the $10-million threshold.

Still, St. Michael's is a remote location with fewer than 400 inhabitants, and only served by air and water. There is no peripheral benefit. Investment is entirely localized.

In the context of the DOT's overarching evaluation criteria—job creation, economic stimulus, and long-term impact—it's hard to divine how this project meets those expectations.

On the other hand, the Prichard Intermodal Facility, sponsored by the West Virginia Ports Authority (WVPA), received $12 million in TIGER III stimulus. A model for rural projects that have sustaining economic development value, the WVPA intends to construct a new intermodal terminal along Norfolk Southern's Heartland Corridor, which runs from the Port of Hampton Roads, Va., to Columbus, Ohio. As a true stimulus, this allocation will benefit business interests in several states and contribute value in terms of facilitating global trade.

Style before Substance

While it's easy to question the DOT's partiality toward rural grants, Blakey cautions against linking TIGER allocations to single-focused criterion—what part of the population gains most advantage.

"If we were strictly going by what benefits the most people, those selection criteria wouldn't be included," she says. "On the other hand, there are investments necessary to support communities that are contributing to foreign exports, notably agriculture— investments that bolster quality of life and encourage greater trade."

The equity with which the DOT distributes funding to rural communities is largely attributed to political lobbying in flyover states. Understanding the discrepancy between much-needed transportation infrastructure investments and cityscape improvements requires greater imagination.

A number of TIGER III awards include community facelifts that integrate public transit, commercial accessibility, and leisure infrastructure development.

Beaufort, S.C., a not-so-remote city of 12,000 people, is another rural project that received $12.6 million for its Boundary Street Redevelopment. TIGER funds will help the city reconstruct and enhance its central road network, including a multi-way boulevard, secondary street connectivity, and a direct link to the Beaufort Rail Trail cycling and pedestrian greenway.

Illinois presents three other examples, with projects totaling $44 million: the Chicago Blue Line Renewal and City Bike Share project will repair 3.6 miles of light rail and expand the city's new bike share program; construction of the Alton Regional Multimodal Station will enable passengers to transfer more easily between Amtrak, regional transit lines, bicycle trails, and pedestrian facilities; and the Illinois Route 83 (147th Street) Reconstruction will rebuild two miles of roadway featuring on-street bicycle facilities, new sidewalks, and bus shelters.

By contrast, the Mid-America Intermodal Port District, a tri-state initiative to develop an inland port on the Mississippi River in Quincy, Ill., and serve the region's booming agriculture export trade, missed out on TIGER funding for the third time.

The port has been in the works for a number of years and has already secured 13 acres of property for development. It's a perfect example of a multi-state project that needs stimulus.

There's no telling the thought process or cost-benefit analysis that went into denying Mid-America Port for a third time while earmarking $20 million for a downtown Chicago bike share program. Perhaps the port's plans were too nebulous or DOT officials deemed the funding requirements too great.

Blakey agrees that cross-state investments make the most sense because "they facilitate and make business more cost effective." Also with TIGER, multi-jurisdictional projects provide more bang for the buck given limited resources.

"In transportation dollars, TIGER isn't a lot of money," she says. "These allocations are relatively small compared to what we spend on transportation."

Blakey also believes the way TIGER is set up supports smaller, less commercial efforts. After initial grant successes, many got slicker with the way they presented their projects and received more money.

Other more needy freight infrastructure projects may simply be beyond the budgetary threshold for TIGER stimulus and therefore don't compete for funding. For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's Bayonne Bridge reconstruction effort—which will lift the span so New Panamax containerships can serve the port—may cost the equivalent of TIGER I, II, and III combined.

TIGER IV and Beyond

If nothing else, the DOT's TIGER program has raised the need for a national transportation policy by not adequately addressing freight investment. It's a roundabout way of getting to the root of a problem, but certainly not an uncommon approach in Washington.

Even when you go through the fine print of ARRA's various transportation subsets and funding allocations, including the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), Federal Transit Administration (FTA), Federal Railroad Administration, and Federal Aviation Administration, there is little directive toward freight. The term "infrastructure" is used loosely.

The FTA has already doled out $8.8 billion as part of its own ARRA funding for public transit and light-rail development projects, including its New Starts, Transit Investments in Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction, and Tribal Transit programs. Some of these projects are competing for TIGER funding as well, which makes the imbalance between freight and passenger transport grants even more egregious.

More telling, the FHWA, which arguably has the greatest input on rebuilding critical over-the-road networks necessary to support interstate commerce and global trade, seems to have its signals crossed.

"These grants went to creative projects that represent the future of our diverse transportation system—everything from regional bicycle networks, to intermodal centers, to commuter rail, to safer highways," notes an official statement by FHWA Commissioner Victor Mendez regarding the initial TIGER I allocations.

Even his broader comments fail to mention cargo movement. For whatever reason, bicycles remain the party line for the DOT—but maybe not for long.

Blakey acknowledges rumblings in some Congressional circles about TIGER distributions and the DOT's carte blanche control over decision-making. U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL) publicly called out the department's "closed-door" evaluation process after Florida was shut out in TIGER I.

But Blakey contends TIGER serves as a good model for how a competitive grant program can work, provided some tweaks are made.

The CAGTC, GAO, and others have supported a more transparent process in which the DOT rates projects on a three-tiered scale and Congress then allocates money separately. This would build more oversight into the program.

"We've advocated that instead of it being an internal, 100-percent DOT approach, there needs to be shared responsibility—especially in the context of a mandate to develop a national goods movement plan," Blakey says.

Private Sector Perspective

While the DOT and Congress have roles to play, there needs to be collaboration from the private sector as well to address the United States' future freight needs—especially because it's on the front line, and collects and controls much of the data necessary for understanding these needs.

This is where public-private partnerships such as the CAGTC offer great value in aggregating input from various constituents and creating a unified front that can more easily communicate with public sector interests.

In November 2011, Congress authorized $500 million for a fourth TIGER dispersal in 2012. But there appears to be a different "C-change" shift in how grants will be appropriated. With regards to national infrastructure investment, Congress has made its instructions to the DOT very clear: "The conferees direct the Secretary to focus on road, transit, rail, and port projects."

Whether this strongly worded recommendation will curtail ped-pushing projects remains to be seen. But perhaps a more telling development is whether Congress or the GAO becomes more actively involved in decision-making, as the DOT's evaluation criteria allows.

Ongoing debate over TIGER funding may be an ideal entrée for public and private sectors to come together and work in unison toward a more sustainable long-term transportation vision. Until the government can execute a strategy for fitting various infrastructure assets and needs into a broader roadmap that embraces the United States as a whole—therefore creating a framework for how and where funding should be targeted—any investment is tantamount to throwing darts without a dartboard.

Currently, it's hit or miss.

Mapping the Money: TIGER III

California, Pennsylvania, and Illinois led the way with three grants apiece in the DOT's TIGER III sweepstakes that awarded $511 million to 46 transportation projects in 33 states and Puerto Rico. From a regional perspective, the U.S. South pulled in the most funding, with 32 percent ($163 million) of the total pie. One bright spot for the shipping industry is that five of the 14 projects in the region are dedicated to freight-specific initiatives—likely a consequence of build-up in anticipation of the Panama Canal's expansion in 2014. At the other end of the spectrum, East Coast projects received 22 percent of the outlay.

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation