On Thursday, the Department of Transportation announced this year’s round of grants for specialized infrastructure projects in 37 states. The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, created as part of the 2009 stimulus bill, will give out $474 million for 52 projects — a far cry from the $9 billion requested by applicants earlier this year. The winning projects range from updating segments of highways to creating new bike paths to expanding ports.
One of the only funding sources that encompasses all modes of surface transportation, TIGER was intended as a kind of competition for states and towns seeking capital investments for innovative, environmentally sustainable transportation projects. To this end, several towns have received funds to expand bicycle lanes, implement zero-emission electric buses, and build pedestrian-only traffic areas.
But many of the TIGER-funded projects this year seem less innovative than simply urgent.
The Mississippi Department of Transportation, for instance, received $4.2 million to rehabilitate a bridge in dire need of repair. The TIGER fact sheet explains the I-20/Vicksburg Mississippi River Bridge is “highly vulnerable infrastructure” that cannot currently “withstand minor side-to-side movements.” Without the TIGER funds, “the deteriorating condition of the Interstate 20 Bridge would threaten the future efficiency and safety of two primary links in the nation’s transportation system, with potentially catastrophic impacts to the regional and local mobility of goods and people and resulting in severe impacts to the economic growth of the Delta Region.”
Greene County, IN is putting about $8 million toward replacing a 110-year-old steel bridge that could fracture any moment. While waiting for repairs, freight traffic is being diverted to circuitous routes in order to avoid stressing the bridge, which connects regional freight corridors.
Arkansas will resurface part of a major highway and replace two bridges so decrepit that their weight restrictions force tractor trailers on to congested downtown roads instead. Oklahoma will use the money to repair 15 miles of “nearly unusable” rail track. Washington will replace a century-old single-track wooden trestle and bridge so it can bear ever-expanding Amtrak rail traffic.
Under the guise of “innovation,” TIGER seems to be picking up the slack for other infrastructure budget shortfalls. Though thousands of roads and bridges could literally crumble at any moment, the U.S. is expected to fall short of the necessary funds to improve them by $139 billion or more over the next decade. In order to raise the national infrastructure’s overall D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers to a B, the U.S. would need to spend $3.6 trillion on upgrades by 2020.
Yet even in the face of crisis, lawmakers are going in the opposite direction. Next year, the Highway Trust Fund, the source of most infrastructure spending, will have a balance of almost zero and a $7.1 billion shortfall in 2015. In order to keep the fund solvent, lawmakers will have to cut federal highway investments from $41 billion to $6 billion and transit investment from $11 billion to $3 billion. Thanks to sequestration’s automatic budget cuts, the Federal Transit Administration has already shed $656 million and essentially eliminated another capital investment grant program.
Though the TIGER projects will help plug some of the holes in American infrastructure, it is no replacement for a long-term infrastructure funding plan. Congress cut the TIGER program’s budget by more than half in its second year, and its budget has been steadily reduced by millions of dollars each year since. House Republicans have already eliminated it from their budget proposal for fiscal year 2014.