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March 29, 2010

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COMMENTARY

Bridges to Somewhere: New TIGER Programís Bite
BY NEAL PEIRCE

WASHINGTON -- Nicknaming a federal grant-in-aid program TIGER may seem an anomaly: Federal disbursements, normally loaded with rules, regulations and complexity, rarely get called bold or ferocious.

But the government’s historic knee-jerk preference for roads gets a nip—maybe a deep bite—in the Transportation Department’s just-announced $1.5 billion in grants to states and cities under the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, or TIGER.

As Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood explained to me: “TIGER is our opportunity to say to folks that we know you’re trying to do innovative and creative transportation things that never really fit our official formulas or program silos. This program is your opportunity to show you’re the innovators around the country.”

Each state and local government applicant, in short, had to show how many of the program’s goals it could reach—“shovel-ready” job production that fights recession and rebuilds the economy, safer streets and communities, environmental sustainability (such as reduced carbon emissions), and greater community livability.

There also seems to have been an unwritten factor: to be catalytic, providing the gap financing to move commendable but stalled local projects forward.

The contrast to money channeled routinely to roads—justified, if at all, on reducing congestion—couldn’t have been more dramatic.

A TIGER-supported replacement for a deteriorated interstate bridge over the Arkansas River in Tulsa, for example, won’t just carry cars and trucks but include lanes for bikes and pedestrians, long-distance freight and passenger rail service, and also space for a commuter rail system that might otherwise have to wait a generation to be completed.

Beleaguered Detroit receives $25 million to help the city assemble funds for its first-ever significant transit line—a 3.4-mile light rail line up the central Woodward Avenue spine, seen as a major downtown economic stimulant and way for low-income Detroiters to access the center city.

Whitefish, MT, is awarded $3.5 million to return its main street, now a high-speed truck route, to walkability and a retail-friendly small town character with curb-to-curb reconstruction, modern traffic controls and angled parking.

Then there’s New York City, where Transportation Department officials allocated $83 million in TIGER funds to improvements for Penn Station, now congested with more millions of passengers than it can reasonably handle. They hope the money will be a magic key to break the local political stalemate that has delayed developing a world-class station in the historic Farley Post Office Building across Eighth Avenue.

Where TIGER funds highways, it’s generally for missing links and interchanges. The bigger news is freight. A 2,500-mile “Crescent Corridor” freight rail network from the Gulf Coast to the mid-Atlantic and involving eight states, receives funding. Plus, TIGER invests $100 million in the long-congested Chicago rail hub, a key to efficient delivery of goods nationwide.
 It’s true TIGER is covering only 51 projects out of the 1,400 applications (total value $57 billion) it received. But if its “modal split” is a harbinger, future government transportation outlays may differ radically from the past. Just 23 percent of the TIGER projects are roads, compared to 26 percent for transit projects, 19 percent for rail, 7 percent for ports and 25 percent for multimodal facilities.

The tightly competitive TIGER grants process “is a smartly conservative, competitive, outcome-oriented way” to ensure federal transportation dollars actually serve regions’ own planning goals and support communities’ livability as well as mobility. That’s the judgment of Scott Polikov, a Texas town planner and transportation expert and board member of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Polikov worked with a successful Dallas-area TIGER application to fund a new streetcar line that connects major employment centers, work-force housing, parks and walkable mixed-use neighborhoods as well as existing light and commuter rail lines. Regional cohesion helped win the day, he says, with the North Central Texas Council of Governments—which serves as the designated Metropolitan Planning Council (MPO) for its area—using the TIGER grant lure to pull together local jurisdictions that rarely work well together.

With Congress hard-pressed to find sufficient money for traditional large-scale highway projects, Polikov says the country’s leading MPOs would do well to coalesce for a competitive, less costly federal transportation program modeled on TIGER.

Potentially, state transportation departments, which have “ruled the roost” on dispensing both their own and federal formula-based transportation dollars, might resist that idea. But TIGER lets the cat out of the bag: Why shouldn’t state departments compete, too—especially in big projects with neighboring states, and not just roads but waterways and rail, with goals mixed from mobility to livability to carbon reduction?

The time’s clearly at hand to spend our transportation dollars a lot more smartly. TIGER’s roar: Let competition come first.

Contact Neal Peirce
©2010, The Washington Post Writers Group


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