Earlier this week the U.S. House of Representatives voted to decrease the budget and impose restrictions for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. While some lamented the potential loss of funding, Congress has limited option. The problem with the TIGER grants is that the Obama Administration has not abided by the spirit of the law. The program as passed by Congress is supposed to fund “…transportation projects of national significance,” “…Enable DOT to use a rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits” and provide basic program information to taxpayers. But a closer examination reveals the administration has abided by none of these requirements.
The first issue is “national significance”. The United States operates under a principle known as federalism where the national government addresses issues that affect the entire country while smaller subdivisions (states and municipalities) govern areas of local concern. In transportation this means that the federal government has funded systems that cross state lines such as Interstate highways, aviation facilities and interstate train service both passenger and freight. Traditionally, the federal government has not funded local roads, transit and active transportation because these systems affect the state, the regional area or the city. However, the Obama Administration is using a program that is supposed to fund “transportation projects of national significance” to support local transit, walking and biking projects. Worse the administration is using a transportation program to fund recreational and economic development projects. This lack of national significance is one way the Obama Administration has violated the intent of the TIGER program.
The next issue is the supposed selection of “…rigorous process to select projects with exceptional benefits.” I have written how the process in the first three rounds of TIGER Grants, the fourth round of TIGER Grants, the fifth round of TIGER Grants and the sixth round of TIGER Grants is far from rigorous and how the benefits are less than exceptional.
The DOT uses six long-term metrics including State of Good Repair, Economic Competitiveness, Livability, Sustainability, Safety, Job Creation and Economic Stimulus and two secondary selection criteria including Innovation and Partnership. Yet the metrics the White House uses are vague. For example, for livability the administration could change, “Will significantly enhance user mobility through the creation of more convenient transportation options for travelers” to the metric, “Will provide missing links in the network providing connectivity. This will reduce travel times by an average of five minutes per trip.” Metric (II) could change from, “Will improve existing transportation choices by enhancing points of modal connectivity on existing modal assets” to “Will enhance the highway mode resulting in increased throughput.”Yet, despite the suggestion to adopt more rigorous metrics more than two years ago, the DOT continues to use weak metrics.
The lack of public information is another major problem. The administration refuses to release any information to the public on how it awards decisions because it claims applicants could game the system. But since some applicants have received repeated grants and others have received no grants at all, some cities are already gaming the system. Several failed applicants would like to know why their applications have been refused but the administration has been less than forthcoming about its reasons. Very few studies have been conducted of the TIGER Grants because of the lack of information. Many researchers suspect the administration of political motives but such claims are hard to prove since the administration will not release any information. However, the number of Democratic districts that receive TIGER grants has always been higher than the number of Democratic representatives in Congress. For example, during the TIGER I and II grants, more than 50% of the funding went to Democrats in vulnerable districts and Democrats and Republicans on a transportation-relevant committee, despite these representatives totaling no more than 30% of Congress. During TIGER III Grant process when Republicans had a 40 plus seat lead in the House, more than 63% of all the projects and more than 70% of all the funding went to Democratic districts. Other factors come into play, but Democratic districts appeared to receive more funding than they should have based on representation.
To address problems with the TIGER Grants, both the General Accountability Office and I provided specific recommendations to improve the process. In 2011, the General Accountability Office recommended three changes the administration could make to the TIGER Grants: increase documentation, limit geographic considerations and release more information to the public. After three years, the administration has adopted zero of these recommendations. I made ten similar recommendations ranging from the use of more detailed quantitative metrics to the release of more information to the public. After two years, the administration has adopted one of the ten recommendations. The non-partisan Eno Foundation wrote a critique of the program; after two years, the administration adopted zero of their recommendations. Criticisms of TIGER are not merely partisan, they have come from both sides of the political aisle. To say the administration is not open to making needed changes to the TIGER Grants program is an understatement.
The DOT Office of Inspector General had another recommendation. It suggested that if the Administration did not improve the TIGER Grant process, Congress should act. Since the White House ignores all criticism and seems to have no interest in improving the program, the House has tried several times to kill the program with the decision reversed in the budget conference committee with the Senate.
However, this year the House appropriations committee has taken a different tactic that may be more appealing to the Senate. Instead of eliminating TIGER funding entirely, the House has reduced the TIGER Grants funding to $100 million and prohibited the funding from supporting, transit passenger rail and transportation alternatives. Since the Senate is expected to restore most if not all of the funding as the program is a favorite of Senate appropriations Chairman Patty Murray, the House and Senate will likely meet in the middle. Hopefully, the compromise will increase needed transportation funding, but require that it be devoted to national projects which use rigorous analysis to provide real economic benefits.
It does not have to be this way. The Republican solution limits some transportation projects that could be useful. For example, passenger rail funding could be justified if the White House was serious about real high-speed rail in the northeast corridor. But since the White House refused to act, Congress had to. Rather than worry whether small towns will receive federally-funded recreational trails, we should be thankful we live in a country where there is a check on an Executive branch that defies the Legislative branch’s wishes.