A federal infrastructure grant program frequently touted by President Barack Obama is lacking in performance and a way to measure the success of the $4.2 billion it has spent, a Government Accountability Office report says.
The GAO report called for better reporting from the Department of Transportation on the TIGER grants, the acronym for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program. While it's a competitive grant program, the audit points out that some of the lowest scoring project get funded before some of the higher scoring projects, and the department has not adequately explained why, the audit says.
“DOT lacks a framework to assess the performance of the overall TIGER program in achieving its long-term outcomes, and Congress lacks information on whether the amounts invested in the program have had their intended impact on the nation's transportation infrastructure—information that could be useful when making future funding decisions,” the GAO says.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, asked for the report.
“Since it started the TIGER grant program has been plagued by a lack of transparency in the decision-making process and mishandling of the management of the program,” Vitter said in a statement. “The application and project selection process have been major concerns because they lack any merit-based structure and transparency – making the program more about meeting the Obama administration’s political needs versus our infrastructures needs. I’m pleased the Department of Transportation has agreed to make reforms, and I’ll continuing working with them to properly implement these reforms in order to bring transparency and performance-based standards to the program.”
Transportation Secretary Anthony Fox announced last month that a new round of grants was on the way.
“We’re making nearly $600 million in grants available, and awarding them to 72 transportation projects across 46 states and in D.C.,” Fox said. “Over the last six years, we’ve awarded more than $4 billion in these TIGER grants, but this round of investment is probably the most crucial ever.”
Obama praised the program during a July speech in Delaware.
“Thanks to a competitive grant program called TIGER—a program, by the way, that was part of the Recovery Act that we initiated when I first came into office and Joe Biden helped to manage—this port is rebuilding a wharf that will finally let Wilmington compete with other ports for the biggest cargo ships, for the biggest cargo ships,” Obama said. “So far, TIGER grants have given a boost to 270 infrastructure projects and thousands of jobs all across 50 states.”
The program solicits donations form the local level then evaluates the applicants based on a project's capacity to stimulate the economy, contribute to safer infrastructure and where rebuilding is most needed.
Obama asserted in a February speech in Minnesota the TIGER grants are effective.
“So we know this works. Today, we’re kicking off the next round of competition for TIGER grants,” Obama said. “Mayors and governors, city councils, state legislatures, all of you who are watching here today, if you’ve got a great idea for your city or your state, then let us know your plan. If it will encourage economic activity and support local businesses, and help put people to work, then your country is interested in partnering with you.”
Also in February, Vice President Joe Biden heralded TIGER grants modernizing business, creating good-paying jobs and strengthening global competitiveness.
The GAO initially found in a preliminary report in May that the DOT did not document its rationale for providing 43 projects with lower technical evaluations ratings received grants in fiscal year 2013 rather than 22 highly rated proposals. GAO asked for more complete documentation of decisions, but the department has not provided that for the updated report issued in September.
The DOT responded that it will continue to provide more documentation on previous projects and do a more thorough job of providing reason projects are selected in the 2014 round of grants.
“DOT has taken steps to measure the performance of individual TIGER projects, but cannot assess overall program performance because many project performance measures do not clearly link to the overall program's long-term outcomes,” the recent GAO report says.