Rail and Transit Benefit, Highways Lose Out in TIGER Grant Distribution

» 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)
PlaceProjectTIGER Grant ($m)Total Cost ($m)Description
Crescent CorridorIntermodal Freight Rail Project105224Development of Norfolk Southern's route from the Gulf Coast to the Mid-Atlantic
Chicago, ILCREATE100162Effort to rework railways in the Chicago area, speed up freight and passenger services
National GatewayFreight Rail Corridor98183Invests in upgrading CSX freight track between Northwest Ohio and Pennsylvania
New York City, NYMoynihan Station83267Companion station for Penn Station; part of much larger multi-billion project to build a new terminal
Tucson, AZModern Streetcar63150.1Rebuilding of 3.9-mile trolley line; expansion and upgrading to modern standards
Washington, DCPriority Buses58.883Improves bus service along 13 corridors
Boston, MAFitchburg Commuter Rail Extension55.572.2Extends existing service 4.5 miles west
Kansas City, MOTransit Corridors/Green Impact Zone5062.4Targets neighborhood improvement through investment in green infra
New Orleans, LAUnion Passenger Terminal/Loyola Loop Streetcar4545Line from Union Passenger Terminal to Canal Street
St. Paul, MNUnion Depot35237.5Renovation of the station, clearing of the area to become regional transit hub
Las Vegas, NVSahara Avenue BRT34.445.217-mile BRT line
Colton, CAAlameda Corridor East: Colton Crossing33.8198.3Eliminates at-grade crossing between Union Pacific and BNSF Railways
Detroit, MIWoodward Light Rail25143New rail line between Hart Plaza and New Center, partially funded by private sources
Portland, ORInnovation Quadrant23.266.5Reconstructs SW Moody, Prepares new streetcar tracks
Philadelphia, PARegional Bike and Ped Network2354.8Repairs 16.3 miles of ped and bike facilities
Dallas, TXDowntown Streetcar2358Improves transit connections in the downtown area
Normal, ILMultimodal Transportation Center2247.4Centralizes area's transportation facilities
Indianapolis, INBike and Ped Network20.562.5Completes 8-mile network downtown
Revere, MATransit Facility20122.6Creates new multi-modal transit facility, revitalizes Wonderland area
Kent, OHCentral Gateway Transit Facility2026.7New bus transfer facility, along with parking spaces
New Bedford, MAFast Track2071.4Reconstructs a series of freight rail bridges, allows freight to waterfront area
Appalachian RegionShort-Line Rail Project17.621.9Rehabilitation of hundreds of miles of short-line railroads
Denver, COU.S. 36 Managed Lanes/BRT10160BRT from Boulder to Denver, shared with HOT Lanes

Image above: Tucson Modern Streetcar, from Tucson Regional Transit Authority

15 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Adam

    Well I think I can hazard a guess as to why Normal got money. It’s going to be on the new higher speed rail line, it’s a university town, and a close by city of similar size and make-up (Champaign-Urbana) has had huge success with its inter-modal facility that it built this past decade. So I think there is merit to the project. Especially if eventually there truly is high speed rail in Illinois (150mph+) and it becomes possible to commute to Chicago from Normal.

  • On the flip side, not spreading it out would also likely invoke calls of favortism.

    But it all boils down to one thing: underinvestment in transportation, regardless of mode.

  • Fritz

    I think this is another clear example of what having an administration that cares about transportation policy can do. I think this and the HSR grants were generally well done even though my state sees almost no improvements from either.

    I hope this has us all thinking about new programs for Reauthorization which can help repeat these–while not quite innovative–better thought out projects and encourage fixing existing infrastructure while building new infrastructure that can help sustain and promote growth in our urban centers rather than eating up greenfields.

  • poncho

    They are on target with what to spend on but just need to scale up the amount of money so that it has widespread effects on employment and improving our nations infrastructure. By the time you divy up the money around the country its not a lot of money and is more small cosmetic projects than revolutionary projects that change how our country gets around. The construction/architecture/real estate professions are among the hardest hit by the economy. Major infrastructure spending would revive these industries tremendously both directly in building infrastructure and in private development that capitalizes on this new infrastructure.

  • I thought freight was private why do they need money to fix there routes? They make Billions each year , yet still need FED money?

  • Don

    Corey- Freight RRs are private. The money for the private frt RR projects are Public-Private-Partnerships. The public only pays for the public benefits (highway congestion relief, reduction in air pollution, passenger rail delay reduction/trip time reduction) associated with these projects. The frt RRs pay the rest.

  • DBX

    As long as freight railroads are paying property taxes on their rights of way that no other transportation providers have to pay, and as long as they’re paying fuel taxes yet not getting highways in return, they deserve these grants — and indeed these grants are necessary to establish the market efficiency of a level playing field between rail and road.

  • Eric G.

    Thanks for the info. This is great news.

    Is there a good reason why the Tucson streetcar line turns so many corners? It seems like that would slow it down, and have a bigger impact to traffic than running straight through the grid with one or two turns.

  • GordNY

    For some time I’ve been wanting to say a few things in support of Federal grants toward private freight RRs. I have no financial interst the rail industry, in fact I work for a major urban transit system.

    While freight RR’s have been doing better in the last few years than they have in decades, as a whole they still do not make enough of a return on investment to pay for major capital improvements to increase capacity, moderize signaling, develop new terminals, etc. With the exception of a couple major routes leading east from west coast ports, and a few lines leading out of Wyoming coalfeilds, RRs have spent little to remove bottlenecks or raise speeds. Dispite historic high rail freight traffic levels, timber bridges don’t get replaced until they burn down and electrifacion remains a distant dream. On some single-track western routes, RR’s have been accused of de-marketing (i.e. not returning shippers pnone calls) low-value shipments like grain and lumber in favor of more lucative consumer goods. They won’t make engough additonal money to attract capital to double-track such lines.

    Since rail is extremely energy-efficient compared to trucks, and can take trucks of the highways, I think there are clear public benefits to goverment funding to increase capacity and reduce transit times on the freight rail network.

    • Woody

      The freights ripped out doubletracks wherever they could, to escape local property taxes. The junior college tax, the water and sewerage district, the hospital tax, school district, city, and county all piled on, because, of course, railroads can’t vote.

      A real public-private partnership will require Amtrak or other government entity to own the second tracks on the private freight railroad’s right of way. Otherwise, the feds send money to upgrade the lines, and the layers of local governments will promptly lay their property taxes on any improvements.

      • Don

        Even freight-only investment can provide public benefits and therefore be worthy of public investment. For example, investment to move truck traffic by rail will result in a reduction in air pollution, reduction in traffic congestion, reduction in highway maintenance cost, reduction in energy consumption and foreign oil imports and avoided capital for extra highway lanes. More of this good stuff will happen if the public pays for the public benefits. It will leverage the RR’s limited capital budget.

  • Railroads don’t pay fuel tax. They can use tax-free gas, which is dyed red so that it’ll be easy to detect cars using it, which is illegal. The same is true for farm machines.

    • Nathanael

      That is, however, relatively new. (Railways *used* to pay fuel tax.)

      Anyway, the CREATE funding is welcome. The most critical part of CREATE (Englewood Flyover) was funded through the HSR funds. This funds some other valuable bits. Unfortunately it does not fund the two other major passenger projects (One is Grand Crossing; the other is the extensive rearrangement of the Belt Railway corridor so that along with freight enhancements Metra Southwest Service has an exclusive passenger path leading into the Rock Island corridor and LaSalle Street Station, freeing up slots in Union Station.)

  • All I can say is at least you have a fairly decent transit system.

    Coming from Scotland I can tell you that you have it 10 times better than I did. From trains once an hour (if that) to buses that you could swear were non existant I think your system is pretty good.

    I understand that there is always room for improvement, but this will never happen 100% when there is other factors to take into the equation.

  • [...] by Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood last December in a visit to New Orleans. Like the TIGER program, whose first awards were introduced earlier this year, this program represents an effort by the DOT [...]

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