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TIGER Changes Its Stripes

This post has been updated.

Beneath the noise of the never-ending Infrastructure Week,
four important developments have affected a critical source of infrastructure funding, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) discretionary grant program:

  1. The White House again proposed eliminating it in its annual budget. 
  2. DOT announced the latest TIGER recipients, with rural projects and road/bridge projects claiming a significantly larger share than past rounds of funding. 
  3. Congress tripled TIGER’s appropriation for the fiscal year 2018 in the omnibus spending bill. 
  4. DOT rebranded TIGER as the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development (BUILD) program, releasing updated criteria for 2018 funding applicants. 

Evident in these developments is a clear shift in the type of projects selected and a stark difference of opinion among policymakers regarding TIGER’s value and its objectives. With its infrastructure proposal twisting in the wind, the Trump administration has used its broad authority in TIGER project selection to advance its priorities and has now changed the program’s name and, potentially, its objectives. Congress’s reaction to these changes will determine TIGER/BUILD’s future.

TIGER’s Structure and Execution

Since its inception in 2009 as a part of the economic stimulus package, TIGER grants have been evaluated and awarded to road, rail, transit, port, or multimodal projects according to how they further these key aims:

  • Improve public health and safety;
  • Maintain a state of good repair;
  • Facilitate economic growth or competitiveness;
  • Improve energy efficiency and environmental sustainability; and
  • Increase quality of life and access to essential services.

Along with considering how applicants further those objectives, DOT has expected applicants to demonstrate that their projects are innovative, have strong partnerships and collaboration with stakeholders, are ready to start soon and complete the project within a few years, and have a positive benefit-cost ratio.

Along with other changes, the rebranding of TIGER as BUILD has adjusted these principles to prioritize the applicants’ share of non-federal revenue in covering project costs.

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Rebranding of TIGER as BUILD

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

Primary Criteria<br /> • Saftey<br /> • State of Good Repair<br /> • Economic Competitiveness<br /> • Environmental Sustainability <br /> • Quality of Life<br /> <br /> Secondary Criteria <br /> • Innovation<br /> • Partnership<br /> <br /> Other Criteria<br /> • Demonstrated Project Readiness<br /> • Project Costs and Benefits<br /> • Cost Sharing or Matching<br /> <br /> Additional Considerations<br /> • Geographic Diversity Among Recipients<br /> Selection Criteria<br /> • Safety<br /> • State of Good Repair<br /> • Economic Competitiveness<br /> • Environmental Protection <br /> • Quality of Life<br /> • Innovation<br /> • Partnership<br /> • Non-Federal Revenue for Transportation Infrastructure Investment<br /> <br /> <br /> Other Criteria<br /> • Demonstrated Project Readiness<br /> • Project Costs and Benefits<br /> <br /> <br /> Additional Considerations<br /> • Geographic Diversity Among Recipients<br />

TIGER grants may be used for up to 80 percent of the costs of projects located in urban areas and up to 100 percent of the costs of projects in rural areas. But under the previous “Cost Sharing or Matching” category, applicants could increase their competitiveness by securing self-sustaining revenues and “demonstrating significant non-federal financial contributions.”

Though this lengthy mix of requirements might suggest otherwise, Congress has given DOT a great deal of latitude in the project selection process. The majority of these requirements have been adopted administratively. For example, DOT requires project benefit-cost analyses, but does not use them to objectively or transparently rate applications. In fact, a DOT Inspector General audit questioned how such analyses are evaluated, noting that, after fiscal year 2016, a lack of economic benefit did not automatically disqualify projects from advancing in the selection process. A host of criteria are considered in the initial evaluation process by a technical review team. Yet ultimately, applications are simply categorized along a scale that ranges from “Not Recommended” to “Highly Recommended,” and then all final funding decisions lie with the secretary’s office. A 2014 Government Accountability Office report highlighted the ambiguity inherent in this process, calling on DOT to demonstrate precisely how applications are evaluated and better document final selection.

DOT’s flexibility in dispensing grant awards is further apparent when looking at recipients. DOT has been statutorily required to disperse TIGER funds geographically across the country and balance the needs of rural and urban areas. In the past, this has included a minimum allocation of 20 percent of overall funding to rural communities, perhaps reflecting the roughly 20 percent of Americans that live in rural communities. For the next round of funding, the minimum allocation to rural communities was bumped up to 30 percent. Otherwise, Congress has not been prescriptive about how the program most appropriately balances rural and urban interests?or to what degree benefit-cost considerations should dictate the allocation of funds. Given the program’s discretionary nature, a somewhat even or representative geographic or urban/rural distribution makes political sense to sustain public and congressional support for the program.

Recent Developments

In March, DOT released the list of grants for their 2017 round of funding (TIGER IX). Importantly, this latest round of funded projects shows a striking shift in project selection toward rural projects and road/bridge projects.