Fix TIGER Program If Necessary, But Keep It
March 19, 2018

This year’s recipients of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants, announced last week, include three of special interest to Waterways Journal readers. The unique grant-giving program has proven to be an efficient means of funding some port- and river-related projects with big impacts that would not otherwise get funding. It’s a shame that its future is now in doubt.

Two recipients involve inland waterways traffic. The Alabama State Port Authority got $12.7 million to convert an abandoned bulk handling facility at the Port of Mobile into a roll-on/roll-off mobile vehicle processing facility, and St. Bernard Port in Louisiana got $13 million to rehabilitate and modernize the last two 110-year-old original wharf sections, A and F, at the Chalmette Slip Project.

A third recipient is maritime, although it doesn’t involve the waterways. Baltimore County, Md. got $20 million toward building the Mid-Atlantic Multi-Modal Transportation Hub, a planned group of state-of-the art cargo handling facilities at the Sparrows Point facility in depressed East Baltimore.
Developed under the administration of Barack Obama, the TIGER grant program has some unique features. It is among the few discretionary grant programs managed directly by the Department of Transportation.

It was the first major federal transportation grant program to be mode-neutral, meaning that any transportation project, regardless of mode, could apply for funding. It was one of only a handful of federal transportation programs that used cost-benefit analysis as part of the application evaluation process.
From the beginning, TIGER grants were required to be spread around the country, with a balance of states and of rural and urban areas.
More important was that while most federal transportation funding can be accessed only by state DOTs or transit agencies, the TIGER application process was open to any project sponsor.

Early on, some criticized the program as “executive earmarks” at a time when Congress was relinquishing its own earmark authority. It was administered directly from the office of the Secretary of Transportation, the first such program to be run that way, which proved to be a big task. The benefit-cost analysis (BCA) requirement left some smaller projects feeling they could not compete because they could not spend tens of thousands of dollars on elaborate BCA reports. A report by the Reason Foundation, citing what it called insufficiently quantitative criteria for picking projects, called the TIGER program an “abysmal failure.”

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