The U.S. Department of Transportation plans to issue within the next two weeks a notice of funding availability for the fifth round of TIGER grants, Polly Trottenberg, under secretary for policy, said Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Coalition for America's Gateways and Trade Corridors on Capitol Hill.
Officials expect to make awards by late summer or early fall, she said.
The Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) is a discretionary program popular with local governments and industry because it supports multimodal, multi-jurisdictional projects that normally don't get funded under the system for highway aid to states. The program has awarded more than $3.1 billion to 177 projects since its creation in 2009 as part of the economic stimulus plan. Freight projects, including the Norfolk Southern's Crescent Corridor rail line upgrade, have been well represented among the winning applications. Almost one-third of the money obligated to date has gone to freight projects, including 25 for port-related construction.
There were 703 applications for TIGER grants seeking $10.2 billion worth during the last round, far exceeding the $500 million that was available.
The DOT's criteria for selecting projects include safety, environmental sustainability, bringing facilities into a state of good repair, project readiness and the ability to leverage non-federal dollars from other public and private partners. The program gets high marks from many transportation advocates for attempting to make investment decisions in part based on economic returns, although Republican critics question whether the program is simply a form of "executive earmarking" for pet projects.
The stop-gap spending bill passed by Congress last month to fund government operations through the end of September is believed to include slightly less than $500 million for TIGER to account for the forced spending cuts across the entire government that took effect March 1.
"I have every reason to believe that freight projects will continue to be an integral part of that program," Trottenberg told about 100 state, local and industry officials representing organizations that favor expanding the nation's freight infrastructure capacity.
The government needs to invest much more heavily in freight because TIGER is only "a boutique program," she acknowledged.
The MAP-21 surface transportation reauthorization bill enacted by Congress last summer failed to create a dedicated freight funding program in part because there is no revenue source and no appetite by lawmakers to dip more heavily into general tax revenues at a time of fiscal austerity. In fact, the Projects of National and Regional Significance, another discretionary program for innovative investments across all modes, was left unfunded.
The transportation law did set the stage for a robust freight program when the next reauthorization bill is voted on, possibly in 2014. It directed the DOT to create a national freight strategic plan, identify the 27,000 miles of highway that constitute the core freight network, expanded the TIFIA loan program, streamlined and consolidated programs and began the transition to a more performance-driven system. - Eric Kulisch