There’s a new TIGER growing at the Department of Transportation, but it’s not clear yet how big it may become.
Like its predecessors in the DOT’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, TIGER III — for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery — is a discretionary grant pool. Unlike its predecessors, this round is just hanging there because Congress keeps passing short-term funding bills that keep spending on most federal programs going at 2010 levels.
Industry officials who like the TIGER grants are watching closely to see if House Republicans keep the program alive in 2011, change or even cut it.
In a lame-duck congressional session that provided no new money for transportation programs and let another major infrastructure financing tool expire in the subsidized Build America Bonds program, these grants offer one of the few ways states can get money for construction projects outside normal highway programs.
The same tax cut bill that failed to renew the bond program into this year, signed by President Obama on Dec. 17, also contained a renewed track construction credit for short line railroads and restored a per-gallon biodiesel production credit that truck stops wanted. All businesses get a one-year, 100 percent tax write-off for plant and equipment expenses, which can help capital-intensive freight transportation firms and many shippers.
But transport specialists say because Congress did nothing new to help offset the fading stimulus project funding for infrastructure or give long-term certainty to transportation funding levels, TIGER grants gain importance.
The first TIGER was a breakthrough test program, a chance to see if professionals at the DOT could target important construction projects without building a bridge to nowhere.
So the stimulus package provided $1.5 billion for infrastructure projects of special regional or national significance, outside normal funding streams such as the Highway Trust Fund and with room to help multimodal projects that don’t easily fit under single-mode federal programs.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood set up a group of top project evaluators he called his TIGER team that sorted out the regular ARRA project requests from states and later decided how to allocate the discretionary grants.
States flooded the DOT with requests for project grants totaling nearly $60 billion; the department spread the $1.5 billion TIGER I grant pool among 51 projects last February, including to two intermodal rail corridors in the eastern U.S. and $100 million to untangle rail lines and roads in Chicago, the continent’s largest rail center.
Congress had some mixed reactions. While some praised the DOT effort, those complaining when their states were left out included Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., who angrily denounced the administration for backing its own “earmark” projects without enough congressional participation. Florida, LaHood said, already had received a large, separate stimulus grant to build a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando, but did not get any TIGER money. Some Democrats and other Republicans also complained about the process, and the port industry told LaHood he had snubbed that sector by giving it just a small fraction of TIGER I money.
Still, Congress budgeted another $600 million for the DOT to make more discretionary grants in 2010, dubbed TIGER II. LaHood announced its recipients in October.
For the 2011 budget year that began Oct. 1, the House and Senate were planning a third TIGER round, although with different amounts. But by passing short-term “continuing resolutions” to fund the government a few months at a time at past-year levels, Congress has kept TIGER growing at the 2010 pace. The latest continuing resolution runs until March 4, so policy specialists say that means the grant pool has built up five months’ worth of the $600 million annual level — about $250 million.
But budget cutters in the new House GOP majority can try to cut 2011 spending levels starting in March, so TIGER along with many other programs may come under the knife.
Among those anxious for a grant pool is Mortimer Downey, a former deputy transportation secretary in the Clinton administration and now senior adviser in Washington to engineering and construction management firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. He thinks the discretionary grant approach has worked well.
“One concern for all of the TIGER fans,” Downey said, “is that Mr. Mica has expressed concern over these discretionary projects. He refers to them somewhat disparagingly as ‘executive earmarks’ and questions whether the process is fair and transparent.”
Mica is poised to have much more impact on transportation policy overall, as incoming chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Downey thinks Mica and other House Republicans “will be looking closely over DOT’s shoulder if there is a TIGER III, and DOT will be under pressure to show the merit in every project.”
Contact John D. Boyd at email@example.com.