This article is the second of a two-part series about how U.S. DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program — TIGER, a discretionary grant program that got its start under the Recovery Act in 2009 — has made transportation planning more strategic, based on a benefit-cost analysis and national goals. Read the first part here, about Republicans’ empty charges of political bias.
U.S. DOT has committed to maintaining geographic equity and a set-aside of roughly a quarter of each TIGER grant cycle to rural areas. (The Eno Center for Transportation, which just released a report on lessons learned from the TIGER experience [PDF], notes that that commitment has probably also been the key to making the program politically sustainable.) But as always, there’s a problem of definitions. What qualifies as rural? Should grantors strive to give equally to each of the four traditional regions, or should grant amounts be proportionate to population?
In the end, DOT tried to be equitable to the four regions, by population, within a range of 12 percent. But maybe it shouldn’t really matter who lives in a certain area as long as the benefits of a project are spread out? For example, freight projects like the CREATE program — a freight rail project in Chicago — benefit the whole country, not just the community they’re located in.
And freight has been a big winner with TIGER, winning nearly a third of TIGER funds throughout the four grant cycles – something U.S. DOT officials wouldn’t have guessed would happen at the outset. But freight is often a perfect candidate for discretionary federal grants. Complex, interconnected, intermodal freight projects that move commerce have “elements that really don’t fit inside the tidy boxes that state DOT are able to deal with,” said Leslie Blakey, executive director of the Coalition for America’s Gateways and Trade Corridors. The focus on national and regional significance is one area where states fail, as they are only in tune with their own needs, not the needs of the whole country.
It’s not just TIGER: MAP-21 has gotten U.S. DOT to focus on freight in a way it never has before, and Congress is following suit, holding the first hearing yesterday of a newly-appointed special panel on freight. But TIGER led the way, bringing together various modal agencies to think strategically and holistically about the freight system. Though TIGER had limited funds to work with, the emphasis on intermodalism was a rare and necessary prerequisite for a useful conversation about freight.
Freight is also a prime example of the way TIGER funding can fill in the gaps between public and private funding. Private investment is “naturally part of the freight system,” according to Blakey, in a way that isn’t necessarily true of other areas of surface transportation. The private sector may be willing to fund the lion’s share of a freight project but doesn’t want to invest in certain elements that are purely for public benefit. That’s an ideal place for TIGER to fit in – to cover just a portion, in partnership with private investors.