What’s ahead for TIGER grants? With its latest round of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant awards, announced on Oct. 20, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation brought good news to state and local agencies that won funds for 75 projects. But DOT disappointed dozens of other agencies whose proposals failed to make the cut.

 Replacement for Seattle’s 81-year-old South Park Bridge won a $34-million TIGER grant.
Photo: Courtesey Ned Ahrens, King County Department of Transportation
Replacement for Seattle’s 81-year-old South Park Bridge won a $34-million TIGER grant.

There is support in Congress to continue the discretionary TIGER grants, which are aimed at projects that will have major national or regional benefits. But the muddled picture for fiscal year 2011 appropriations bills leaves the TIGER outlook hazy.

The House in July passed a 2011 spending bill for DOT that recommends $400 million for TIGER-like National Infrastructure Investment grants. In the Senate, the 2011 DOT spending measure has yet to make it to a floor vote, but the version that cleared the Appropriations Committee has $800 million for TIGER-type “transportation investment grants.”

Neither of those two measures has advanced any further, however. When Congress recessed before the Nov. 2 elections, it had not yet given final approval to the DOT bill or any of the 11 other measures that finance various parts of the government for fiscal 2011. Instead, to keep federal programs going, lawmakers passed a continuing resolution (CR) that funds agencies through Dec. 3, generally at their 2010 levels.

The House and Senate are scheduled to return for a postelection session in mid-November. But the short time between the start of that lame-duck session and the early December expiration of the stopgap CR makes a further catchall appropriations extension likely.

Still, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood sees the DOT appropriations bills as a sign of support for the TIGER program on Capitol Hill. He says, “We’re pleased that Congress realizes that the TIGER program allows for creative, innovative opportunities that don’t fall under the … formulas that have traditionally been used by the Dept. of Transportation.”

LaHood adds, “I think Congress gets it. I think a reflection of that is the House [2011 DOT appropriations] bill and the Senate [committee] bill. And we’re pleased and grateful that Congress understands this is an important program.”

If Congress does approve a 2011 appropriations measure for DOT and the eventual TIGER III funding range for the year is between the House’s $400 million and the Senate committee’s $800 million, DOT almost certainly will find itself again with many more applications than it can fund.

That was true with the initial TIGER round, established by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. DOT saw about $60 billion worth of applications for the $1.5 billion it had available. The department announced the winners of those grants in February.

For the just-awarded second round of TIGER grants, DOT received nearly 1,000 applications from all 50 states, but awards totaled only $585 million.

In that TIGER II round, DOT spread the money among a variety of transportation modes. Of the $585-million total, 29% went for roads, 26% for transit, 20% for rail, 16% for ports, 4% for projects for bicycles and pedestrians, and 5% for planning.

The largest individual grant among the 42 capital awards was $47.7 million to the city of Atlanta to help finance a $72.2-million, 2.7-mile downtown streetcar line.

Other big winners included a plan to unsnarl a freight-rail bottleneck in Fort Worth, Texas, and a replacement for Seattle’s 81-year-old South Park Bridge. Each of those projects received $34 million in TIGER II grants.

Besides the 42 capital grants, DOT awarded 30 planning grants.

The first TIGER round, funded by the stimulus act, required no local matching funds. The second round, which was financed by regular appropriations, mandated a local match of at least 20% of total project costs. But that added requirement didn’t seem to dampen the desire for the grants.