From Michigan to Idaho, locals hope TIGER survives in the Trump era

March 8, 2018

Michael Andersen, PlacesForBikes staff writer

The TIGER-funded Razorback Greenway in Bentonville, Ark.

The grant program that has funded the crown jewels of U.S. bike infrastructure—from the Indianapolis Cultural Trail to the Razorback Greenway of northwest Arkansas to Portland’s remarkable Moody Street—has picked its latest round of winners.

[Update 3/19: here’s the list.]

Meanwhile, for the second year in a row, it’s also been proposed for elimination. (Our friends at Streetsblog briefly reported Wednesday that the program had already been killed, then retracted the story.)

The proposal from the Trump administration to end the U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program seems unlikely to advance this year. But with TIGER’s survival now subject to an apparently annual debate, it’s worth asking: What’s the case for TIGER, and what’s the case against it?

Detroit trail network: ‘A tool for revitalization’

The Joe Louis Greenway would become a “spine” for Detroit’s low-stress biking network.

TIGER has funded many projects that don’t include major biking components, from freeway lanes to streetcars. But biking advocates said in interviews that except in the very largest metro areas, it’s almost the only way to get a substantial sum all at once for a major non-automotive transportation improvement.

The City of Detroit first submitted the proposed Joe Louis Greenway as a TIGER candidate last fall. This year’s application was apparently unsuccessful but Todd Scott, director of Detroit Greenways, said the city is likely to resubmit in future years.

“It is our nonmotorized spine project,” Scott said. “It connects up major investments that are occurring within the city. … It’s being seen as a tool for revitalization of city neighborhoods.”

Because a low-stress biking network has little value until it is connected, it might be politically difficult to justify building the trail one mile at a time.

“Such a major project with such a large price tag — there just aren’t very many funding opportunities unless you want to take a really long time to construct it over multiple grants,” Scott said. “And the TIGER program was the way to do that.”

Idaho trail advocate: ‘I don’t know where else we’re going to get it’

Connecting the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail would serve several small cities that struggle to pull together large chunks of money.

TIGER grants may be even more important to rural areas, said Susan Drumheller, president of Friends of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail in Ponderay, Idaho.

That’s because 20 percent of the program is set aside for projects outside larger cities, where the tax base is often too small to afford any new infrastructure at all.

“It’s a shoreline trail along Lake Pend d’Oreille,” Drumheller said. “For years, people only were able to use it by trespassing on private property … to get there from Ponderay or Kootenai, you had to trespass across the railroad tracks to get down to the trail and to get to the lake.”

Drumheller’s group raised private donations to purchase land to improve access to the trail, but has been working with nearby cities for two years to prepare a TIGER grant that would fund a fully track-free connection with a new underpass.

“Getting an underpass built is extremely expensive, and this little community of Ponderay—it’s within their city limits—they can’t afford this on their own,” she said. “We got the benefit cost analysis done, and we’re working on [National Environmental Policy Act documentation] and trying to come up with a matching funds strategy, and we hired a firm to help us get all our ducks in a row. … If they pull the funding from TIGER it’s kind of like pulling the rug out from under these efforts. I don’t know where else we’re going to get it.”

Paying for parks, or just pork?

A built section of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail. Photo via
Friends of the Pend d’Oreille Bay Trail.

In the Trump administration’s defense, it’s also proposed a new, one-time $40 billion program of largely unrestricted block grants for infrastructure in rural areas—all of it to be awarded, if the program were to pass, by 2019. State governors would decide which projects got funding—and they could decide to spend it on biking networks.

But the No. 2 and No. 3 Republicans in the Senate essentially declared Trump’s infrastructure plan dead last week.

Opponents of the TIGER program have called TIGER an “administrative earmark.”

In 2015, Heritage Foundation policy analyst Emily Goff wrote that TIGER “gives cities perverse incentives to pander to Washington, asking for money for projects that may not even be aligned with their priorities at home.”

Goff said TIGER should be eliminated because it sends money “to purely local, not federal, projects” that are “of the government’s choosing, not where private investors in a free market might put resources.”

Drumheller, the northern Idaho trail advocate, said she can’t make a case that a lakeside biking-walking trail is nationally significant, except that without national support it seems unlikely to ever exist.

“It certainly would have major local and regional impacts,” she said.

But she wondered why any other local transportation project would have national significance, either.

“There’s all these people who live out that way who have no way to get to that lake,” she said. “I can imagine that this trail would get an enormous amount of use from people getting between these three communities. You would have a wonderful way to ride your bike through town from one end to another.”

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