Approximately every six years, Congress reauthorizes U.S. surface transportation policy. One of these reauthorizations is overdue, providing an opportunity to make U.S. transportation policy more free-market oriented. I have chosen six programs or policies that badly need to be changed. Over the next two weeks, I will summarize each of these programs.
My first recommendation is to eliminate the Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. The TIGER program is an executive agency discretionary funding program that supports road, rail, transit and port projects. Started in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) also known as the Stimulus, TIGER is supposed to award funding based on merit. Unlike most federal programs, which appropriate money based on a formula set by Congress, the TIGER program is administered and audited by the executive branch.
Unfortunately, the executive branch’s administration of the TIGER program has failed to follow the rules and expectations of the program.
The program is supposed to achieve critical national objectives, yet more than 60 percent of the grants have supported local transit, pedestrian or bicycling projects. While such projects have a role, they are not national projects and should not be funded by a national-oriented program. Several of the road, rail and port projects are also locally oriented.
Projects are supposed to be selected based on “rigorous” criteria, but DOT uses vague metrics. For “livability,” the department’s definition is “Significantly enhance the creation of more convenient transportation options for the traveler,” which could mean almost anything project sponsors want it to mean.
Lower ranked projects are frequently funded while higher ranked projects are not. In the first round of TIGER grants, the agency funded almost as many “recommended” projects as “highly recommended” projects. In the fifth round of TIGER grants, DOT changed the ratings of some projects from “not recommended” and “recommended” to “highly recommended” in order to justify funding them.
The program provides limited information to applicants and the public. Despite three requests from the Government Accountability Office to provide better documentation of the review process and to release more information to applicants who fail to win grants and to taxpayers, USDOT has failed to provide more information as requested about the program.
Democratic districts have received a disproportionate share of the grants. In the third round of grants Democratic districts received 61% of the grants and 69% of the funding, despite comprising 49% of the total congressional districts. Democratic districts were overrepresented as award winners in all six rounds of TIGER Grants.
Since funds would be allocated by Congress we don’t expect eliminating the program will cost taxpayers anything. In fact, staff reductions could follow permitting executive branch employees to engage in other activities.