Tame This TIGER: DOT Discretionary Grant Program Functions as Earmarking
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Tame This TIGER: DOT Discretionary Grant Program Functions as Earmarking

Despite the moratorium on federal transportation earmarks, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has found a way to fund local economic development projects of questionable value. The USDOT has used the supposedly merit-based Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program to direct funds to many local projects. The DOT recently announced the latest round of award winners. This year’s TIGER grants set aside $600 million to fund projects that are supposed to have a “significant impact on the Nation, a region or a metropolitan area.” TIGER funding could serve as a helpful stopgap since the federal gas tax is declining in real value and the Highway Trust Fund is nearing insolvency. For example, the Interstate highway system has major needs; the roadbed is approaching the end of its 50-year lifespan and additional lane capacity is needed to keep up with projected traffic.

But DOT does not seem that interested in actual highway needs. Of the 72 projects that received funding, 26 are classified as “road” projects by the DOT. But the real goal of six of these “road” projects is to improve walkability and bike access, known as “complete streets,” instead of repairing crumbling infrastructure. “Complete streets” is the idea that roads should be designed with more room for bike access and safe pedestrian crossings. The goal of “complete streets” is to revitalize neighborhoods and city centers by making them more accessible by foot or bike. While the idea sounds appealing and makes for great photographs, should federal funds go towards these local projects compared with regional or national projects? Our answer is that federal funds should support national priorities especially today when the existing surface transportation system is outdated and at or beyond capacity in many areas. And we are not alone. The Bipartisan Policy Center has called for federal action to support national transportation goals, not for the DOT to pick its favorite local projects to fund.

Let’s take a closer look at these “complete streets” projects. The 2014 TIGER grants fund eight such projects at a total cost of $106,605,327, as seen in the table below. Seven of the projects are misclassified; six are counted as “road” projects and the TIGER grant in Los Angeles is labeled as supporting “transit.” But these projects do little to build or maintain road and transit systems. The Eastside Access Improvements project in Los Angeles uses federal funding to plant trees, install street furniture, widen sidewalks and make other aesthetic improvements. Apparently, the DOT thinks installing street furniture will do more to increase transit use than operating more transit vehicles.

The Dahlonega, Georgia project, which may be the most egregious, is using $5 million in federal funding to revitalize the downtown area, which is neither a national nor a regional transportation priority. This revitalization consists of building sidewalks for streets with limited vehicular traffic. Another project that might have had a more widespread impact has gone unfunded in order to increase accessibility for pedestrians and cyclists in downtown Dahlonega, an urban area with fewer than 6,000 people. When the government allocates funds, it is a zero-sum game.

The following table presents each of the “complete streets” projects.

Project Mode State Federal Funding Percentage TIGER Grant Total Project Cost Urban or Rural
Asheville East of the Riverway Multimodal Network Road NC 50.00% $14,600,000 $29,200,000 Urban
Downtown Dahlonega Complete Streets Corridor Improvements Road GA 55.59% $5,100,000 $9,175,000 Rural
Los Angeles, Eastside Access Improvements Transit CA 69.21% $11,800,000 $17,050,000 Urban
Champaign-Urbana, Multimodal Corridor Enhancement Project Road IL 45.02% $15,705,327 $34,883,465 Urban
Tulsa, Riverside Drive/Gathering Place Multimodal Access Project Road OK 25.93% $10,000,000 $38,558,729 Urban
Columbia, Seamless City Revitalization Project Road SC 21.92% $10,000,000 $45,614,748 Urban
New York, Vision Zero: Saving Lives and Providing Opportunity Project Bike/ Pedestrian NY 47.35% $25,000,000 $52,800,000 Urban
Waterbury Active Transportation and Economic Resurgence (WATER) Project Road CT 70.59% $14,400,000 $20,400,000 Urban

Even in urban areas “complete streets” still provide limited benefits beyond the immediate community. In Connecticut, a state whose highway performance and cost-effectiveness ranks 44th out of the 50 states in Reason Foundation’s latest Annual Highway Report, TIGER funds paid for over 70 percent of the Waterbury Active Transportation and Economic Resurgence (WATER) Project. The project is another downtown revitalization scheme that involves building a trail along the Naugatuck River, reconstructing local streets into “complete streets” and making bike and pedestrian transportation improvements. Again, not only is this project not a “road” project, its primary purpose is making downtown more accessible. Furthermore, the resurgence of downtowns has not necessarily been the result of conscious planning, but instead an organic process.

Communities around the country may find “complete streets” projects to be worthwhile investments. However, TIGER funding should not be used for projects with such locally concentrated benefits given the current pinch on federal transportation funding and the persistent need to upgrade many outdated roads and highways that are nationally and regionally important.

The “complete streets” projects have other issues; they rely more on federal funding than other TIGER projects already in the construction phase. The federal share of total costs for the “complete streets” projects is just over 48 percent, whereas the federal share for all other modes is only 42 percent. So while Smart Growth America may claim that each 2014 TIGER dollar leverages nearly three dollars in matching funds from other sources, but the “complete streets” projects that the organization highlights leverage only $1.14 from other sources.

What types of projects should DOT be funding instead? The New Route 47 Missouri River Bridge Project that replaces a 78 year-old bridge is a much better use of discretionary funding. And the Route 47 project also leverages non-federal funding, using the TIGER grant for only 18 percent of the total project cost.

To be fair, DOT must abide by some rules that discourage selection of the best projects. Congress requires that at least $120 million of this year’s TIGER funding be directed towards projects in rural areas. This requirement makes the selection process more challenging, because the most needed infrastructure projects tend to be located in cities or suburbs. However, there are some rural transportation projects of national significance. The most valuable of these projects makes improvements to federal or Interstate highways, not to revitalize city centers. For example, the TRI-Mississippi project repairs nearly 42 miles of roadway and replaces 18 bridges offering better transportation alternatives than some of the gravel roads and timber bridges that are currently being used.

The misclassification of “complete streets” projects is the latest example of the DOT obfuscating the purpose of TIGER projects. The Government Accountability Office has already reprimanded the department twicethis year. The DOT should not label these projects “road;” it should instead classify them as “bike/ pedestrian”, or better yet, should create a separate “local economic development” category of projects. This way taxpayers will know when federal funds are being misdirected into local boondoggles.

Baruch Feigenbaum is assistant director of transportation policy at Reason Foundation a non-profit think tank advancing free minds and free markets.