California Town Builds Wide Coalition to Win Rural TIGER Grant

August 10, 2016

Of the nine rural TIGER grants awarded at the end of last month, a streetscape project in the City of Live Oak, California stood out as a prime example of how a municipality can leverage their county, state, and federal representatives to successfully navigate the application process – to the tune of $10 million.

Situated 50 miles north of Sacramento, this small farming town of 8,500 is bisected by California State Route 99 (SR-99), a critical artery for California’s agricultural sector. For over five years, city leaders had sought funding for a traffic calming and mitigation project, to no avail.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA 3), who represents Live Oak, suggested applying for a TIGER grant last year when Vice Mayor Jason Banks approached him at an open house event in 2015. Garamendi, a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, proceeded to connect the city government with an expert in the field, according to a press release.

Afterwards, the city worked in conjunction with various entities at the county and state levels including the Yuba-Sutter Economic Development Corporation, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, Sutter County Board of Supervisors, and CalTrans (the California Department of Transportation).

Then, on July 29th, USDOT announced that the Live Oak Streetscape Project would be one of the 40 recipients of the FY16 TIGER grant.

Following USDOT’s announcement, ETW conducted a quantitative analysis of broader trends among TIGER grant recipients that can be accessed here. For the scope of this piece, we will review the factors that may have helped Live Oak distinguish itself from the 584 other eligible applications USDOT received in order to land among the 6% of applicants that received grants.

The TIGER Grant

The TIGER program, established in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, was the first major federal surface transportation grant program to be mode-neutral. A Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA) has always been used in the application evaluation process.

This competitive grant has a decidedly broad scope. While most federal transportation funding is accessible only to state transportation agencies or transit agencies, TIGER applications are open to agencies of all sizes including municipalities, regional entities, metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), and multi-agency collaborations.

TIGER grants have been lauded for providing local entities like Live Oak with a pipeline to a federal funding mechanism, yet the program has faced criticism for a lack of transparency in the selection process. The Office of the Secretary of Transportation (OST) assesses applications on a mostly qualitative basis, aside from considering the BCA that each applicant is required to prepare.

OST does not publically release substantial details on how grantees are selected, or why others are not. It is therefore difficult to compare the relative merits or shortcomings of each application, or – as critics have suggested – the impact of political considerations on the part of OST.

The Live Oak Playbook

Although the specific reasons for Live Oak’s selection compared to other applicants are not known, we are able to trace through what we do know about the structure of the grant: legislative requirements for USDOT’s administration of the grant, what is known about OST’s selection process, and how the city’s approach may have differed from other applicants.

Of the three requirements outlined by Congress, Live Oak did not face major impediments:

  • Equitable geographic distribution of funds: Congress imposed a $100 million restriction on the amount that can be granted to a single state in FY16. In this round, California received a total of $40 million.
  • A maximum federal share of project funding: While the TIGER statute allows projects in rural areas to have a federal cost share of up to 100%, DOT generally prefers projects where the state or locality makes a substantial financial contribution, and the federal share requested by Live Oak was only 58%.
  • Balancing the needs of urban and rural communities: Congress requires a minimum percentage of grants to be awarded to rural areas, which potentially allowed Live Oak to stand out.

The Office of the Secretary of Transportation does not release its side-by-side comparisons of grantees, but there are certain goals set out by USDOT that this project likely would have met:

  • Economic competitiveness: SR-99 is one of the arteries through the agriculturally-rich Central Valley of California, stretching nearly 425 miles from Bakersfield to Sacramento to Chico. It serves as the primary connection between much of the region and Sacramento, and allows Central Valley agriculture and industry to access Union Pacific’s freight rail network.
  • Improving safety: Traffic calming measures will be implemented along the one-mile stretch of SR-99 that passes through Live Oak’s downtown, while highly visible crosswalks and sidewalk facilities.
  • Increasing livability: In addition to improvements made to pedestrian facilities, the project promises bicycle infrastructure improvements to “foster a more livable and accessible main street. . . making it easier for residents living nearby to connect with education, employment, and other essential services.”
  • Cost-share: With the $10 million TIGER grant covering a majority of $17,290,938 total cost of the project, Live Oak secured $5 million from CalTrans and will pay the remaining $2,290,938 using city funds.

Finally, there are some more intangible aspects of the consideration process that may have served Live Oak well. The city managed to build a broad coalition among regional and state authorities, with the Yuba-Sutter Economic Development Corporation helping to write the grant and nearly a third of the project cost shared by CalTrans.

Finally, and importantly, Rep. Garamendi’s support as a member of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee certainly provided the city with a resource for information and connecting with experts in the field, as indicated in the Congressman’s press release. It must be noted that the political factors that go into decision-making are unknown, but it may have also helped that Rep. Garamendi wrote a letter to Secretary Foxx to express his support for the project and emphasize the economic difficulties faced by the “rural, disadvantaged northern California community.”

For an in-depth review of the TIGER grant program, you may consult the Eno Center’s 2013 report, Lessons Learned from the TIGER Discretionary Grant Program.

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