» Detroit’s light rail project, Downtown Dallas, and Tucson’s modern streetcar are big winners.
One year after the stimulus bill was signed into law, the Department of Transportation unveiled the winners of its big TIGER grants, which are transportation projects awarded on merit to cities and transit agencies from around the country.
For proponents of new streetcar projects in cities like Cincinnati, Charlotte, and Atlanta, today’s announcement is a major let-down. Each had hoped to win but a small portion of the U.S. Department if Transportation’s $1.5 billion in discretionary funds for meritorious transportation projects.
Alas, applicants from all fifty states demanded a total of more than $56 billion in federal grants, and there simply is not enough money to spread around.
But the Department of Transportation is moving in a positive direction: only 23% of investment went to highway projects, compared to 26% for transit and much more for intermodal and freight rail. It also has invested big bucks in pedestrian improvement programs. Indeed, TIGER says a lot about how this DOT works when it’s not under the direct control of Congress: it is prioritizing spending that is not car-centric.
And some cities were lucky today, their proposals intriguing enough to attract the attention of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. Detroit now has a serious commitment from Washington for its Woodward Avenue light rail line; Dallas and Tucson will be able to move forward with their downtown transit links; New Orleans will be able to construct a minor extension of its streetcar network; New York City will see an expansion of service for its Midtown commuter rail lines; and the Washington, D.C. region will get the go-ahead for a number of rapid bus lines.
Philadelphia and Indianapolis will get significant sums to reinforce and renovate their pedestrian and bicycle networks.
But the Administration’s focus is clearly still on intercity rail, a priority for President Obama’s team since entering office more than a year ago. Three projects, each with a cost of $98 million or more, will address existing bottlenecks in the freight system, clearing the way for better transport of goods and more reliable passenger service. Corridors near Chicago, between Northwest Ohio and Pennsylvania, and in the deep South will see such improvements.
Though the TIGER grant process was supposed to result in the funding of creative, unique solutions to transportation problems in the United States, it would be hard to argue that many of the programs chosen for funding today are particularly different: no money was spent on bike share networks, for instance.
The DOT is also demonstrating a rather close consideration for the financial needs of the nation’s freight rail companies, which will be benefiting directly from Washington’s spending on improved rail corridors. It could be suggested that there are few other outlets at the national level to award such funds — and there are certainly significant merits to investing in the transportation of cargo via rail — but whether the government should be choosing to benefit certain freight rail companies over others is open to debate.
If the government is investing in improving traffic conditions along freight lines, shouldn’t it also receive some of the profits from the operations of those lines? Shouldn’t it demand from the companies that benefit better treatment for Amtrak, which is frequently delayed because of freight trains that share the same track?
There are also some transit investments here that appear to be mild forms of patronage for cities on the economic down-and-out. Why should Revere, Massachusetts or Normal, Illinois get tens of millions of dollars for their downtown transit facilities? Can the DOT provide compelling evidence for why their applications were more worthy than those of the tens of other cities that asked for similar funds for similar projects?
Meanwhile, the relatively small nature of most of the grants means that the impact of TIGER may be too spread out. New Orleans, for instance, will get money for just a tiny segment of its overall streetcar expansion project.
That said, Las Vegas and Tucson will get enough funds to ensure the completion of their full respective bus rapid transit and streetcar lines.
For those cities that did not receive awards today, their hopes shouldn’t yet be exhausted. The Department of Transportation has $280 million to distribute over the next year for inner-city circulator grants, money that will go to many of the bus rapid transit and streetcar systems that do not yet have enough fiscal support.
|Major TIGER Transit Stimulus Projects (not including multimodal and port projects)
Image above: Tucson Modern Streetcar, from Tucson Regional Transit Authority