Marine Transportation System

What TIGER Tells Us

In Marine Highway, Surface Transportation Policy on February 23, 2010 at 12:39 pm

No, not that Tiger.

The eagerly awaited TIGER grants were announced last week.  An experiment in government.  Against their better judgment members of the House and Senate gave $1.5 billion to the Administration and left it to the discretion of USDOT program managers, modal administrators, the Secretary (and perhaps the White House, just in case) to decide what projects were worthy.  (Egads! The bureaucrats!)

The multimodal discretionary grants program—later assigned a name and acronym at USDOT—was created a year ago in the cauldron in which Congress cooked up the economic recovery package.  The context was job creation in a failing economy.  But the genius of TIGER’s tenacious sponsors—most visibly Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA)—was that it also was a good time to try something different.  Politics would always be lurking in the background (if not in the foreground) when doling out tax revenue for public works but this was not a time for the earmarking norm.

Also lurking was the thought: if this works it could set the example for a change in transportation policy.

Lisa Caruso of the National Journal asks in her transportation “experts” blog if TIGER should be replicated in the surface transportation authorization bill.  Can it serve as a model for the revised policy and programs that many of us look for in the bill?

So far the respondents (scroll thru the page) generally agree there is benefit in the approach.  What’s not to like? Livable community folks liked the selection of street car and pedestrian path projects.  Goods movement was given a strong boost with around $300 million going to rail projects.  And it was good to see that at least one of the promising marine highway initiatives was granted $30 million.  (The first of many one hopes.)  That award illustrates how TIGER–and Secretary Ray LaHood–was open to more than the usual road, transit and bike path projects.

By and large, very good projects were selected.  But the question posed by Caruso is whether TIGER represents a policy approach worth continuing.

Some of the respondents think TIGER is a good starting point but that it is important to change the underlying policy.   In particular Steve Heminger notes it is not enough to create a grants program that is mode neutral.  An improved Federal policy and program should have a clearer, focused national perspective e.g., goods movement and metropolitan mobility.  It is a view I share.

Bob Poole raises an important policy question worth debating by suggesting an underlying weakness of a multimodal approach if a highway tax is the sole source of support.

One person’s response I would be interested to see is that of Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA).  In January 2009 the chair of EPW, which is to produce highway and other portions of the next authorization bill, flatly opposed the multimodal discretionary grants provision in the draft Senate stimulus bill, even as Heminger and other Californians welcomed the idea of a mode-neutral program and projects judged on their merits.  Boxer and others in the transportation leadership of Capitol Hill will decide whether the TIGER approach is just a brief detour from projects as usual.   Pbea

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  1. While the multimodal aspect of the TIGER grantees was gladly apparent, and there even seemed to be some (minimal) awareness of the maritime sector in the grants, there was still an overwhelming ignorance of modern times. When will it be recognized that “infrastructure” includes information technology as well as concrete and steel? The nation’s waterways are woefully behind in employment of technology common in all other modes. The TIGER grants would have been an excellent opportunity to spur actual implementation of e-Navigation concepts in North America that exist mostly in the abstract at IMO and IALA, but have a good start in the European Union and elsewhere.

    • Nowadays IT and the basic utilities are labeled “critical infrastructure,” a lofty modifier denied the lowly public works with which I am concerned. Seriously…I can’t say that I am familiar with the e-potentials in the maritime sector but I do share your sense that our maritime sector is comfy in the 20th century as advances are both developed and implemented in other modes and other countries. We here squeeze every possible year out of our vessels as if it is a virtue. I know that is an over-simplification, and economic drivers are hard to ignore, but there also are few signs that we have genuine interest in fostering a modern fleet for a seagoing nation.

  2. The $4 billion bank proposed in the FY 2011 budget looks like a “TIGER cub” and a way to institutionalize many of the good features. Note that the authority for the bank (or National Infrastructure Innovation and Finance Fund) explicitly includes not only ports but maritime projects.

    The HTF argument is in many ways miscast. The point is who is the user in the transportation system–it is the shipper and the passenger who routinely use multiple modes.

    For more see our February issue of Eno Brief available at enotrans.com.

    • You’re spot-on, Steve. The bank proposal is a step in the right direction, especially assuming take-home projects will remain a priority on the Hill and a wholesale shift in policy won’t happen anytime soon. I also point readers to your good Eno brief.

  3. [...] fairness, a good percentage of USDOT-issued TIGER grants went to rail, marine highway and other freight related projects earlier this year.  We take that [...]

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