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How TIGER Transformed Transportation Planning — And Lived to Tell About It

When the buzz about a new, stimulus-funded, discretionary transportation grant program started to circulate in 2009, some environmentalists opposed it. They worried it would be a slush fund for the Federal Highway Administration, used to build unnecessary roads that would aggravate sprawl and pollution. But insiders knew that wasn’t how the new Obama administration would be handling things.

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TIGER, the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program, has been praised from the left, right, and center for rewarding innovation, leveraging scarce dollars, breaking down modal silos, and funding non-traditional projects that don’t fit well under formulas.

Though Republicans have sometimes grumbled that the program has merely replaced Congressional earmarks with “administration earmarks,” or that it’s rewarded Democratic districts, they’ve continued to approve funding for the program. Even as House members have zeroed out high-speed rail funding for each of the last three years, they've gone along with five separate appropriations for TIGER without too much fuss.

Yesterday, the Eno Center for Transportation released a paper [PDF] investigating what TIGER has done well, what challenges remain, and what could be improved.

How TIGER changed the way states think about project planning

TIGER blew open the traditional processes for funding transportation. Rather than just submitting a list of projects on the wish list and getting formula funds in return, grantees had to pick their best projects with the greatest benefits; after the first round of grants they also had to have at least a 20 percent match from state, local, or private interests. TIGER has transformed the way transportation officials think, even beyond the grantees – failed applicants have sometimes gone back and tweaked projects, brought in new partners, lowered costs, and improved plans. TIGER has helped transportation officials around the country see a new, more strategic way to plan and carry out projects – a method that is beginning to be expected at the federal level.

Plus, state DOTs aren’t the only entities eligible to apply for TIGER grants – MPOs, port authorities, and transit agencies can apply on their own, too.

The intermodalism of the program has encouraged U.S. DOT to hasten the process of breaking down its own “modal silos” as well, with people from different modal agencies working together to select projects. Intermodalism is also a challenge: It’s not easy to compare a bike trail to a freight rail project or a highway interchange – they are judged on completely different metrics – but DOT has sought to choose the best projects put before them. And, as U.S. DOT Undersecretary Polly Trottenberg said at Eno’s panel discussion yesterday, of all the criticism of the program, there’s been almost no criticism of the individual projects they’ve selected.

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