WJ Editorial

Fix TIGER Program If Necessary, But Keep It

This year’s recipients of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, announced last week, include three of special interest to Waterways Journal readers. The unique grant-giving program has proven to be an efficient means of funding some port- and river-related projects with big impacts that would not otherwise get funding. It’s a shame that its future is now in doubt.

Two recipients involve inland waterways traffic. The Alabama State Port Authority got $12.7 million to convert an abandoned bulk handling facility at the Port of Mobile into a roll-on/roll-off mobile vehicle processing facility, and St. Bernard Port in Louisiana got $13 million to rehabilitate and modernize the last two 110-year-old original wharf sections, A and F, at the Chalmette Slip Project.

A third recipient is maritime, although it doesn’t involve the waterways. Baltimore County, Md., got $20 million toward building the Mid-Atlantic Multi-Modal Transportation Hub, a planned group of state-of-the art cargo handling facilities at the Sparrows Point facility in East Baltimore.
The TIGER grant program has some unique features. It is among the few discretionary grant programs managed directly by the Department of Transportation.

It was the first major federal transportation grant program to be mode-neutral, meaning that any transportation project, regardless of mode, could apply for funding. It was one of only a handful of federal transportation programs that used cost-benefit analysis as part of the application evaluation process.
From the beginning, TIGER grants were required to be spread around the country, with a balance of states and of rural and urban areas.

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More important was that while most federal transportation funding can be accessed only by state DOTs or transit agencies, the TIGER application process was open to any project sponsor.

Early on, some criticized the program as “executive earmarks” at a time when Congress was relinquishing its own earmark authority. It was administered directly from the office of the Secretary of Transportation, the first such program to be run that way, which proved to be a big task. The benefit-cost analysis (BCA) requirement left some smaller projects feeling they could not compete because they could not spend tens of thousands of dollars on elaborate BCA reports. A report by the Reason Foundation, citing what it called insufficiently quantitative criteria for picking projects, called the TIGER program an “abysmal failure.”

But despite these shortcomings, the program relatively quickly won bipartisan support. While most other federal transportation funding is tied to multiyear bills, TIGER grants are more flexible. A 2013 report by the Eno Center for Transportation noted, “Because the TIGER program had no geographical or modal ties to user-based taxes, USDOT was able to use program resources to fund ‘non-traditional’ forms of transportation infrastructure (such as walking, biking, port, freight rail and intercity rail) without engaging in contentious user pay debates. … The fact that TIGER grants were available to any agency, organization, or state helped build a much broader constituency of support relative to grant programs that are focused on a particular mode or available only to state DOTs. From a policy perspective, this was seen as a positive attribute since it ensured that states and localities had ‘the flexibility to develop proposals that reflect their preferred strategies for advancing national goals’ outlined by the program.”

The Eno report outlined areas where the program could improve, suggesting more transparency, more quantitative analysis, and giving members of Congress more of a role in vetting projects. Some of these issues have been addressed in subsequent reauthorizations.

As the DOT website notes, this year, “More than 64 percent of this round of TIGER funding was awarded to rural projects, a historic number that demonstrates this administration’s commitment to supporting the country’s rural communities.”

Because the Trump administration didn’t include the TIGER program in its budget request, some obeservers have concluded that it wants to phase it out, perhaps replacing it with another program of grants to rural areas, where most of Trump’s voters live.

But it’s up to Congress, not the president, to decide whether or not to continue this program.

Despite its flaws, which are fixable, the TIGER program has mostly proven to be lean, flexibile, responsive government getting big bangs for its bucks. It provides a unique source of funding for some port and waterways projects that could not get it anywhere else, despite their importance.