By Andrew Taylor
WASHINGTON — Just two months before the midterm elections, the Obama administration in September awarded the biggest share of almost $600 million in economic stimulus-based transportation grants to projects in districts with a Democratic congressman even though Republicans represent 34 more House districts across the country, according to an Associated Press analysis.
Applicants from Democratic-held districts won 48 percent of the so-called TIGER grants for road, bridge and rapid-transit projects as well as rail line repairs and port upgrades. Just 33 percent of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants were awarded to GOP-held districts. The rest went to projects that cross district lines.
Republicans claim GOP-represented areas have been shortchanged every year since the TIGER grants were established in 2009 as a small part of President Barack Obama’s $840 billion stimulus package to help bring the U.S. economy out of a recession. Many of the projects are familiar to motorists because of roadside signs proclaiming them as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Democrats argue that more grants naturally go toward the pressing infrastructure needs of urban areas, where they continue to outnumber Republicans. But the pattern is nonetheless irksome for Republicans, who represent 54 percent of House districts nationwide.
A year earlier, according to the AP’s analysis, projects in 30 Democratic-held congressional districts received grants totaling $303 million, while projects in 20 GOP-held districts won grants totaling $140 million. Two projects spanning district lines got grants, totaling $13 million, in 2013.
“Just by the numbers, one has to say that it looks like politics is involved because Democratic districts fare far better, significantly better, than Republican districts,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La. “This is more about funding President Obama’s political needs than funding our infrastructure needs.”
A Transportation Department spokesman said politics do not play a role and declined to make agency officials available for interviews.
“TIGER is a merit-based, competitive program, and DOT funds the best projects that are submitted, no matter where they are located,” said spokesman Brian Farber. “In fact, a number of Republicans championed projects in cities that are represented by Democrats and vice versa. Most of our TIGER projects received bipartisan support. Many projects have Democratic mayors, Republican governors and a split congressional delegation.”
Indeed, many of the projects awarded to GOP-held districts in states such as Minnesota, Louisiana, Alaska and Colorado were advocated for by Democratic senators. Republican senators also pitched for projects in Democratic districts in their states.
At issue is some $4 billion in discretionary grants awarded since the stimulus law’s enactment. TIGER grants are a small portion of the government’s surface transportation budget. They augment more than $50 billion distributed annually to states through a formula and from a trust fund financed by the 18.4-cent-per-gallon federal gasoline tax.
The nearly $600 million in TIGER grants allotted for 2014 went out in September. The grants are awarded through a process that takes into account factors such as state of disrepair, economic benefits, safety and the environment. Competition for them is strong. Just 1 out of 11 applicants won a TIGER grant this year.
Sometimes, however, the best proposals don’t win out.
Last year, only 33 of the 136 applications getting a “highly recommended” grade were awarded grants, according to an analysis by the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency that serves Congress. Seventeen applications with lower grades of “recommended” also won grants. Two grants for projects graded “acceptable” were awarded to applicants from urban areas. Transportation Department representatives do not explain why proposals with lower grades often win out over more highly ranked ones.
Sometimes grades have been changed by officials with no explanation after technical teams make tentative assessments.
“A continued lack of documentation of key decisions … can give rise to challenges to the integrity of the evaluation process and leave (the Transportation Department) vulnerable to criticism concerning the rationale for the decisions made,” according to the GAO analysis.
There have been token efforts to kill the TIGER program now that Obama’s stimulus initiative has long expired, but the grants are popular with lawmakers, and Congress continues to pay for them each year. After a self-imposed ban three years ago on “earmarking” specific projects in spending bills, the grants are among the few remaining vehicles for politicians to claim credit for bringing federal money to constituents.
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich, an endangered Democrat in a Republican-leaning state this election, invited Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx over the summer to Seward, Alaska, where local officials and railroad representatives successfully pressed for TIGER money to develop a master plan for expanding the city’s busy port.
After rural areas got short shrift in the initial 2009 round of grants, winning just 7 percent of grant money, lawmakers in 2010 added a requirement that roughly 1 in 4 TIGER grant dollars be used for projects in rural areas. Most of those rural grants go to projects in GOP-held districts, though politically vulnerable Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, D-W.Va., helped win a $10 million grant to help build a two-lane “touring parkway” linking state parks and the New River Gorge to Interstate 64 in his state.
Grants also went to districts and states represented by powerful Republicans atop the House and Senate committees responsible for appropriating money for the TIGER grant program. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., backed a $24 million grant to widen 2.4 miles of a congested highway through Salyersville, Ky.
A $17.9 million grant for road and bridge improvements in southwestern Mississippi was welcomed by the state’s two GOP senators as well its lone House Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson, in whose district most of the project would be.