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Could a national TIGER program co-exist along with a version in each state? Yes, says U.S. DOT

As momentum builds for a proposal to give local communities of all sizes direct access to a share of federal transportation dollars via statewide competitive grant programs, a USDOT official affirmed that it would complement the existing national grant program and help meet more of the pressing needs in these communities.

Senator Wicker asks a question during this week's hearing.

Senator Wicker asks a question during this week’s hearing.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) is a sponsor of the Innovation in Surface Transportation Act, which would create the state programs. During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing this week, he asked Peter Rogoff, under secretary for policy at USDOT, whether a statewide grant program similar to TIGER could work in tandem with it. As a prelude, he gave an example of the good that grants to local communities can do:

I want to give you an example. There were three small counties in Southwest Mississippi that came together in a project called Tri-Mississippi; Claiborne County, Jefferson, and Franklin County. They submitted a TIGER application in 2014 to fund the replacement of 22 failing bridges and the repair of 40 miles of roadway. This grant was awarded to Tri-Mississippi, and through this project we were able to create, we believe, 262 additional jobs in an area that was highly distressed economically.

The booming demand for the TIGER program underscores two points: There is far more demand for the grants than currently supplied, and locals are clamoring for more direct access to fund smart projects that are often neglected by their states. Sen. Wicker continues:

So, good news for these three small counties; bad news for the counties that submitted equally excellent applications and weren’t chosen. In this system we have learned that nationwide nearly 6,100 applications have been submitted and only 343 receive funds. This represents a project award rate of less than 6 percent. Last year’s competition alone had projects requesting funding 15 times the amount authorized in the [TIGER] program. As one of our witnesses mentioned the needs are out there, and we are simply not meeting the needs.

TIGER grants often go toward bigger projects and it can be a challenge for a small community to compete with big metro areas or joint projects from multiple states to win funding, as well as handling the complications of preparing an application for a small community with limited staff. Meanwhile, their state controls almost all of the federal formula funding that comes to their state, and locals have little control or say over where it gets spent. Sen. Wicker added:

That is why Senator Booker and I have developed a state-based competitive grant program that you might call state-based TIGER, or TIGER-esque program for states. We introduced it last year. We’ve reintroduced it again this year in the form of the Innovation and Surface Transportation Act. Discuss this concept of a certain portion of funds being set-aside for competitive, merit-based applications, so more of these local communities are able to utilize funds in a way where they could not possibly submit a match.”

Mr. Rogoff answered:

I think there is certainly room for both, but I think there is value in a federal program where we can disseminate best practices, and if Mississippi also wants to mirror that with a competitive, innovative program that can go to local communities, more the better.”

The more the better, indeed.

The Innovation in Surface Transportation Act would give local communities more access to, and control over, a share of the federal transportation dollars that flow into their states. Just like TIGER, it would be competitive and projects would compete on the merits. But unlike TIGER, the selection panel would be made up of state and local representatives. Rather than compete against every community in the country, applicants would pursue funds along with their peers within the state.

Rallying support for this measure may be the best chance we have this year to get federal dollars closer to taxpayers’ communities.

Just this week, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) indicated he believes the current system giving states all the control is sufficiently “local”, Congressional Quarterly reported. Rep. Shuster needs to hear from his fellow representatives that the status quo isn’t cutting it in their communities. Now is the time to remind them all that communities need more access to federal dollars, not less.

Send a message to your representative and senators and urge them to support this bill.

Innovation in Surface Transportation Act featured