Fierce Competition for TIGER Funding: Who Wins? How? And at What Cost?

tiger awards

The United States faces a crisis that has become all too familiar: infrastructure imperatives with insufficient investment funds to meet them.

To answer the high demand for transportation project funding, the United States Department of Transportation (USDOT) developed the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) competitive grant program. In April of this year, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced that the seventh round of the TIGER grants would be issued, awarding $500 million to transportation projects across the nation. As the USDOT website explains, “TIGER 2015 discretionary grants will fund capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure and will be awarded on a competitive basis to projects that will have a significant impact on the nation, a region, or metropolitan area.” This year’s program focuses on “capital projects that generate economic development and improve access to reliable, safe and affordable transportation for disconnected communities both urban and rural.”

Applicants appreciate TIGER grants as a way to innovate and supplement their formula programs, but they do not offer a solution to the longstanding shortfall. TIGER grants are available for all state, local, and tribal governments, transit agencies, port authorities, metropolitan planning organizations, and other political subdivisions of state or local governments. Eligibility requirements also allow project sponsors at the state and local levels to obtain funding for multi-modal, multi-jurisdictional projects that may not typically qualify or score high under more traditional sources of funding. Any eligible organization must register and provide the project name, a project description, location, and some details about project type in order to apply.

The USDOT receives hundreds of applications, so it typically awards funds to applicants that exceed eligibility criteria and demonstrate a level of commitment that surpasses their peers. So how do agencies manage to exceed criteria and demonstrate that level of commitment? What makes a project worthy of a portion of the allotted funds?

Cambridge Systematics has assisted more than 20 clients across the United States in preparing more than 35 TIGER grant applications for a wide range of projects. We have led benefit-cost analyses(BCA) and economic impact analyses, and we have provided general support to Federal, state, and local projects for both public- and private-sector organizations. Presenting the case for need is easy, but making the application stand out from the crowd is more difficult; often worthy projects are overlooked. The need for funding always far outstrips the available amounts.

A couple of years ago, we supported the TIGER application for a trackage improvement project for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. We developed a BCA for an $11.2 million project to renew track infrastructure along a 20-mile segment between Rutland and Leicester, Vermont. The application led to an $8.9 million grant. Some key steps that helped demonstrate the need and level of commitment to the project included quantifying major potential impacts in a number of areas from the investment over a 20-year period, and using an economic impact model to demonstrate and assess broader indirect effects on the regional economy (e.g., employment) that would result from a more efficient rail operation.

The favorable BCA—taking the long-term scope and indirect economic effects into consideration —helped to win funding for the Vermont project. In reality, BC calculations are not the only criteria used by USDOT at the national level to award funding under this program. As in funding decisions at all levels, intangibles can be hard to quantify; the best decisions aren’t always solely on a project-by-project basis, but instead on a system level or as part of a larger policy-based agenda or goals. Making the selection criteria clearer and making the process for awarding money more transparent would help agencies better prepare their applications and would instill confidence that the worthy projects are chosen. Transparency also may help USDOT to acquire feedback on the process to determine how the program could operate more efficiently, considering that there are costs associated with applying for these grants. For example, Cambridge Systematics has made refinements to the level of sophistication for economic analysis to yield more transparent and defensible results and could possibly improve the overall grant allocation process. Using TIGER to advance particular types of investment is the prerogative that comes with discretionary grants, but accompanying that must be clear accountability in order to achieve a sense of fairness, particularly with insufficient overall funding available.

Despite any potential improvements to the process and program, regardless of the availability of TIGER grants, we face one challenge above all: the dearth of adequate and sustainable funding in the face of unprecedented need in infrastructure improvement to serve a growing population and economy. The efficiency of the partnerships among the Federal, State, and local owners and operators of highway and transit systems argue for continued management of that pipeline on a formula basis, focusing discretionary programs like TIGER on unique exceptions and new ideas. Unless more funds are dedicated to address truly national infrastructure needs, piecemeal approaches such as TIGER can support only a limited number of worthy initiatives. That should not stop us from considering initiatives at the State and local levels, as well as at the Federal level, to meet the growing backlog of demand for maintenance, operations, and new capacity whether through traditional means or via new technologies and techniques that address the demand-side of the equation. These are the sorts of questions to ask, because one thing remains irrefutable: transportation infrastructure needs are great; for each project that receives a grant, many more are left trying to find the funds.