Frustration With Stop-Gap Transpo Funding Shows at DOT Town Hall

Agency Expects Congress to Authorize Third Round of TIGER Grants

U.S. DOT’s top leaders (save Secretary Ray LaHood) fielded questions about the next long-term transportation bill this morning as part of a “town hall” session at agency headquarters. The conference, the sixth and final stop on a national listening tour, was billed as a chance to give feedback about how the transportation bill should take shape. While senior department staff adhered to the listening session format, divulging few specifics about their current thinking, they did provide a glimpse of the frustration over the ongoing lack of certainty for transportation funding.

One piece of news to come out of the session concerned the agency’s popular Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program. Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Polly Trottenberg reported that Congress will likely authorize a third year of the TIGER competitive grant program, which is seen as a model for allocating infrastructure investment based on strategic goals and criteria.

During the Q&A, DOT leadership made two points clear. The department wants and needs a long-term funding authorization, and they want to cut the time it takes to approve and finish projects.

“The series of short term authorizations is frustrating to us,” Deputy Secretary John Porcari said, pointing out that the department has gone through some weekend construction shutdowns caused by reauthorization delays. The most desirable outcome for DOT, Porcari said, is a long-term authorization with predictable funding.

The other frustrating point for DOT is the length of time it takes for a project to move from authorization to construction. “We simply take too long to deliver our projects,” Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said. One of his policy priorities is to cut project times in half.

Beyond those two priorities, officials made few specific comments, returning to themes they've sounded previously.

Transit and rail freight issues were the hottest topic of the morning. Responding to a question about the upward creep of gas prices, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said that DOT cannot simply allow existing transit systems to “limp along.” Without getting into specifics, he implied that transit systems -- many of which have been pummeled by financial shortfalls and service cuts -- should be in a position to handle surges in demand. “We saw a considerable spike in ridership when gas hit $4 a gallon,” he said.

The panel also reinforced DOT’s commitment to interagency partnerships, exemplified by the partnership between DOT, HUD, and the EPA that seeks to promote smart growth and sustainability by building housing convenient to transit. “This interagency cooperation is central to where we are heading,” Porcari said.