Milton Friedman once said that "nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program." Until this week, that was a good description of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants. But yesterday, in a rare display of fiscal wisdom, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation voted to kill the TIGER.
Created in 2009 as a supposedly temporary stimulus measure, TIGER was extended year after year to fund an increasingly dubious collection of transportation projects. That has included everything from $311 million in bike and pedestrian infrastructure—hardly a federal priority—to $11.8 million for sidewalk widening and "streetscaping" in Los Angeles, including the installation of benches, trees, and other aesthetic improvements.
"My issue with the TIGER grants," says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation analyst with the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website), "was that it was more about funding for political reasons," not awarding project funds on their merits.
The TIGER program did create a process for evaluating projects for their quantitative contribution to the nation's economy and transportation infrastructure, but by the government's own standards this process was woefully insufficient. A 2014 Government Office of Accountability report found that TIGER projects often violated internal controls, doling out funding to projects that had applied after deadlines or which were rated inferior to other applicants.
Moreover, the Department of Transportation's chief economist referred to most of the cost-benefit analysis conducted by grant applicants as "pretty bad," concluding that it required significant revisions.
No project shows these flaws quite like the Atlanta Streetcar, which received $47 million in TIGER grants in 2010 (the most of any project that year) on the promise of delivering a streetcar system for $72 million and creating 93 permanent operations jobs. The end product was a $98 million streetcar project that created only 23 jobs. It has also cost three times the initial projections to operate, and its operations and safety practices have been subjected to scathing audits.
Lawmakers on House and Senate transportation committees took advantage of the program's inadequate internal checks to bring more pork home to their constituents. A report by Feigenbaum found that 40 percent of the first two round of TIGER grants went to districts represented by Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; the four highest-ranking Democrats on the same committee each received at least one TIGER grant apiece.
Those days may be ending. The Trump administration's 2017 and 2018 budget requests both called for the program to be shuttered. The 2017 omnibus bill kept the program alive, but with Tuesday's vote there is hope that this TIGER might finally be put down. That said, the rollback still has to pass a full vote of the House. And then it needs the approval of the Senate, where Feigenbaum says TIGER has proven even more popular.