Local and state governments seeking a piece of the $500 million in TIGER grants available next year would be wise to pitch projects relating to intermodal rail.
That’s because the majority of the freight projects that got a slice of the Department of Transportation’s most recent round of TIGER grants will improve intermodal connections, help shippers export or both. Forty-six projects, ranging from bridge replacement to passenger rail work, received $511 million in funding this month through the third round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economy Recovery program.
Preference for intermodal rail projects is part of the Obama administration’s push to reduce truck traffic and promote exports as an economic engine, said Mortimer Downey, senior adviser to construction engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. That’s putting highway interchanges with rail operations at a premium, particularly when they connect to a port.
The Port of Long Beach will get $17 million toward a $64.5 million project to relieve congestion at an intermodal rail chokepoint, and $12 million to the Port of Northern Montana will help shippers export agriculture products.
Still, the awards to freight projects were about half what the industry received last year, when port and freight rail initiatives snagged about $300 million, or half of the total funding. This time, awards to projects that will benefit ports and freight rail accounted for about $134 million, or some 26 percent of the total awards. Public transit took 29 percent of the funding.
Downey said freight projects likely will fare better next year because Congress wants the awards to ignore “livability” projects prized by the administration and focus on traditional infrastructure spending. Expect more spending on roads, bridges, rail and ports, while proposals for passenger and bike paths are left on the wayside.
The DOT hasn’t said when it will receive applications for the next round of TIGER grants, but Downey expects the agency “to be fairly quick,” considering it fast-tracked the last round. Plus, Obama will want to drum up re-election support through another round of awards before the November vote.
Downey said the latest round of TIGER grants demonstrates the DOT understands it is important to get the railroads on board with intermodal projects from the start. He was also encouraged by the DOT using the awards as leverage for funding, instead of as an attempt to pay for most of the project outright.
Some award recipients, however, may struggle to fill the funding gap for such projects, especially because state governments are strapped and railroads are often reluctant to kick in for intermodal rail facilities.
The Port of Jacksonville received $10 million of the $25 million it sought for an intermodal rail terminal, and the port needs another $45 million. CSX Transportation, which plans service to the intermodal facility, said it won’t make up for the shortfall. “It’s going to take some work and a lot of creative thinking, but I remain hopeful that the importance of this project to our future competitive position will continue to make the solid case for funding it,” Jaxport CEO Paul Anderson said.
The applications certainly suggest there is pent-up demand as efforts to pass a broader transportation funding bill languish in Congress. The DOT said it received 848 applications for projects totaling $14.3 billion in funding.