DALLAS -- The Transportation Department could begin accepting applications by the end of July for what might be the final annual round of a popular stimulus-era grant program, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told lawmakers on a Senate appropriations panel on Thursday.
The notice of submissions for the $500 million of Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery competitive grants authorized in the omnibus budget measure for fiscal 2017 “should be coming out pretty shortly,” Chao said. “We understand the eagerness of everybody.”
Neither President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018 nor the spending measure adopted on Tuesday by a House appropriations panel includes any funding for TIGER, which was created in 2009 by President Obama’s stimulus bill. The grant program is not part of the five-year federal transportation funding law that was enacted in late 2015 and must be renewed each year in the appropriation process.
The application period for the TIGER grants will probably begin in late July or early August, she said.
“Whatever funding you gave us will be distributed in fiscal 2017,” Chao said. “You’ve given us the money, we have to give it out.”
Chao, the only witness at the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation panel hearing, defended the administration’s 2018 budget proposal but received scant support from the panel. Her appearance had been set for June 8, but was postponed due to the appearance that day of fired FBI Director James Comey before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A skeptical Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, made it clear that she would not go along with the zeroing-out of TIGER.
“The elimination of the highly effective and popular TIGER program, for which I have advocated consistently since its creation nearly a decade ago, is a mistake,” said Collins, chairwoman of the transportation appropriations panel.
“TIGER has the flexibility to fund a wide range of transportation projects that promote economic development and job growth on a regional basis,” she said. “This program offers an otherwise unavailable resource for vital infrastructure needs at the local level.”
Chao acknowledged TIGER’s popularity in Congress, but said it was a program that had outlived its usefulness.
New competitive grants that were created by 2015’s Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act that target projects to untangle freight network bottlenecks can fund many of the projects that otherwise would rely on TIGER, she said.
“With the passage of the FAST Act and the creation of a new competitive grant program, the department has other opportunities for funding those projects that have nationally or regionally significant characteristics,” she said. “Grant programs that meet the objectives of the new infrastructure initiative will also be considered for future investments.”
The administration has yet to determine how to fund the $200 million of direct federal spending in President Trump’s proposed $1 trillion, 10-year infrastructure renewal proposal, Chao said.
“We hope to provide more details on the infrastructure program this fall,” she said. “I am looking forward to discussing this with the Congress.”
Revenue options for the infrastructure renewal effort and to provide support for the Highway Trust Fund include a road user charge based on vehicle miles traveled, the sale of federal assets, or an increase in the federal gasoline tax, she said.
"We actually have begun to look at perhaps using different kinds of measures for funding highways, one of which is using mileage traveled," Chao said. “At this point, nothing is off the table.”
Public private partnerships will be an important part of the infrastructure program but cannot carry the whole load, she said.
“We can make federal and state dollars stretch further by leveraging, and we can tap into the management benefits offered by the private sector,” Chao said. “The administration does not believe public-private partnerships are the answer to all infrastructure needs, but they can play a much stronger role in fixing America’s infrastructure.”