There’s an old joke about a drunk who loses his keys in a park, but decides to look for them on a nearby sidewalk under some streetlights. When asked why, he responds, “It’s brighter here.”

The unfortunate sot came to mind recently, as the U.S. Department of Transportation announced its most recent round of award decisions for the TIGER grant program. TIGER, which stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, was created as part of the 2009 stimulus act and has won praise for establishing an alternative model of federal transportation investment. Rather than doling out money to states via formulas—as is the case with most federal funding—TIGER instead awards grants to specific projects of merit, determined through an annual competition.

The result is greater transparency for taxpayers, and, because TIGER is not dependent on the Highway Trust Fund, it is immune from the constant threat of insolvency that plagues much of federal transportation funding (though not from Republican attempts to kill the program altogether). Since 2009, it has issued 381 grants averaging about $12 million.

With this year’s grants, however, it is now clearer than ever that when it comes to investment in mass transit, TIGER is not the savior that many would like to think.

This is not to indict the design of the program, which was never intended to singlehandedly change the federal government’s approach to transportation. Yet at a time when the country’s mobility needs are severe—and with increasing consensus that there is demand for good mass transit and that auto dependence is unsustainable—the mediocrity of this year’s TIGER transit grantees highlights how sorely a new approach is needed.

Questionable Investments

By the numbers, 2015 was a fine year for transit within the TIGER program. Public transportation projects were awarded 29 percent of all funds, the highest proportion since TIGER’s inaugural year. The average grant for transit was about $13 million—not great, but an improvement over the lean 2012 and 2013 funding rounds.

While the quantity of transit investment slightly improved, however, the quality of the selected projects deserves scrutiny. Among the grants awarded, $14 million will help build a mixed-traffic streetcar line in Milwaukee of the sort that may not actually help people move about the city. $10 million will go to replacing a ferry terminal in New Orleans used by about one-tenth as many people per month as the city’s bus system. In Rhode Island, $9 million was awarded to help the state build a new “travel plaza” (read: fancy gas station), which was included in the transit category because it will contain a stop for buses of the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority. And in Buffalo, an $18 million grant will make transit a less attractive option by reopening to automobiles a portion of downtown Main Street that is currently reserved for pedestrians and light rail. (USDOT claims, somehow, that the effort “will revitalize the downtown area.”)

Of course, the majority of TIGER grantees this year—including those in the mass transit category—are more worthy projects than these. Yet even the most deserving ones have their own fatal flaws.

Case in point: the announcement of $20 million in funding for a new bus rapid transit (BRT) line in Birmingham, Alabama.

Transit advocates tend to hold BRT in high regard; when designed well, it can move far more people than a traditional bus (since the buses run in dedicated lanes) at the fraction of the cost of a rail line. And Alabama’s largest urban area certainly needs better transit—a recent report from the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota ranked Birmingham last among the 46 cities studied in every measure of job accessibility by transit.

For BRT to make sense, however, it must operate frequently enough that users can rely on it without hesitation. But the TIGER grant is no guarantee that Birmingham will adhere to this rule. For starters, the Birmingham-Jefferson County Transit Authority currently has only 14 vehicles in reserve for use at peak service, according to information from the National Transit Database—and not all of these are necessarily buses. While the grant announcement says the TIGER money will partly pay for additional buses, a spokesperson for the BJCTA told me that the City of Birmingham (which is the official grant recipient) has yet to decide how much money it will share with the agency for these purposes.

Even if the transit agency were able to acquire new buses, it is not clear whether it has enough money to operate them. Currently, the Birmingham transit agency relies mostly on contributions from local governments, plus a beer tax (in a state that doesn’t drink much) and funding from the local racing commission (which has recently been in dire straits). Alabama, meanwhile, is one of five state governments that provide no money for public transportation. A segregation-era amendment to the Alabama constitution, passed at a time when less than 5 percent of eligible African American voters in Jefferson County were registered, forbids any state gas-tax revenue from being spent on transit. Today, African Americans comprise 38 percent of all commuters in Jefferson County but 89 percent of all transit commuters, and are more than eight times likelier to use transit to get to work than their white counterparts. But the amendment still stands.

Little surprise, then, that two generations later, transit service in Birmingham is meager. Currently, buses rarely run more than twice an hour even on the system’s most vital corridors. Some of the less important routes operate just once a day in each direction, as Ashley Cleek reported in Al Jazeera earlier this year.

More Doesn’t Always Mean Better

The shortcomings of Birmingham transit point to a larger problem with the way the federal government funds public transportation.

As Yonah Freemark has discussed frequently at The Transport Politic, Washington’s support for mass transit is limited almost exclusively to capital investments—that is to say, money for maintaining and expanding the fixed assets that transit agencies own. Transit operations—the labor, fuel, electricity, and other costs associated with actually running buses or trains—are generally not eligible for federal assistance.

The distinction has existed long enough that few members of Congress—even those who represent transit-reliant constituencies—have spoken out against it. But while today it seems like a permanent fixture of federal transit policy, the federal prohibition on operations funding has not always existed, nor was it inevitable. Beginning in the early 1980s, budget and transportation officials within the Reagan Administration began advocating for the elimination of operating assistance. In April 1985, the New York Times reported on the proposal, and found little support for the idea either among the people who ran transit agencies or the people who used their services. Notably, one of the most alarming interviews from the Times’s reporting was with a Birmingham resident. “If they eliminate the bus I couldn’t make it to school, that’s it,” Alabamian Todd Mitchell told the Times. “It would ruin everything.” In Flint, Michigan, meanwhile, officials told the newspaper their city’s transit would “not survive.”

But USDOT was adamant that the poison was also the cure. Operating assistance, said Ralph Stanley, the head of Urban Mass Transit Administration, had “cultivated inefficiencies” and left agencies too reliant on federal money. David Stockman, the White House budget director, called it “a special abomination.”

In the end, the administration got its way. Beginning that decade and continuing with additional legislation enacted during the Clinton Administration, Washington rolled back operations funding for most transit providers, with a few exceptions for small agencies and providers in rural or small urban areas. Subsequent transportation legislation has made minor changes but has not fundamentally reformed the policy.

As a result, Washington’s approach to mass-transit funding became like the drunk under the streetlights. Rather than taking the difficult path that would be more rewarding in the long run (that is, funding operations), Congress favored—and continues to favor—a policy of capital assistance that is more politically palatable but often does little to improve transit in a meaningful way.

Thirty years later, this policy is in dire need of a reassessment. To be sure, capital assistance—including the TIGER program—has yielded successes in its own right. Dallas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix, among others, boast rail systems that did not exist a generation ago, while transit users in other cities enjoy new, more environmentally friendly buses. By most measures, however, people in the U.S. use transit less—not more—than they did a generation ago, even though a greater proportion of them live in urban areas. Americans took fewer trips on public transportation per capita in 2013 than thirty years earlier. Overall, a smaller proportion of commuters use transit to travel to work today than in 1980.

A golden age for transit? Depends how you measure it.
A golden age for transit? Depends how you measure it.

Source: Author’s calculations using 2015 Public Transportation Fact Book, Appendix A Historical Tables, Table 1: Unlinked Passenger Trips by Mode, and Table 21: Revenue Vehicles Available for Maximum Service by Mode.


The chart above illustrates the contradiction. Measured by vehicles available per 100,000 people, transit agencies have returned to a peak not seen since the early 1950s. Yet the comparable statistic of trips per 100,000 people has barely budged since reaching its nadir in 1995.

The story is slightly sunnier when it comes to vehicle-hours, a statistic that loosely approximates the extent and frequency of transit service available to a potential rider. Per capita, that figure has increased 26 percent since 1986, the first year the American Public Transportation Association began collecting the relevant data. Yet the increase in service has, notably, not kept up with the increase in vehicles: today, the average bus or train operates 181 fewer hours per year than it did in the mid-1980s—a nine percent decrease.

More transit service per capita, but less per vehicle
More transit service per capita, but less per vehicle

Source: Author’s calculations using 2015 Public Transportation Fact Book, Appendix A Historical Tables, Table 13: Vehicle Total Hours Operated by Mode, and Table 21: Revenue Vehicles Available for Maximum Service by Mode.


Compared to the 1980s, then, American transit agencies today collectively own more vehicles—and run each of them less. In part, this development is the result of rapid population growth in parts of the country that had little transit before. (Las Vegas didn’t need many buses in 1980—it had only 165,000 people.) But it is also the predictable result of the move away from operations funding at the federal level. The country today has, in a sense, more transit than at any other time in recent years. But Americans seem to know it does not have better transit—and ridership statistics reflect it.

Focusing on Frequency

All this begs the question: what is “good” transit? It must be convenient to where people live and work (probably the latter more than the former, as Daniel Kay Hertz recently noted at City Observatory). Service must be reliable and frequent. And the fare must be relatively affordable. Capital assistance can help improve some of these aspects, but not all of them—and particularly not frequency, which transit expert Jarrett Walker has long argued is the most important.

Reinstating a national operating assistance program, then, is essential to any federal effort that truly seeks to improve the quality and accessibility of public transportation. This is not to say capital assistance should necessarily be reduced; rather, we must simply acknowledge that money spent building tracks, stations, and bus lanes makes no sense if local governments cannot afford to run enough trains or buses to make the capital assistance worthwhile. In the case of competitive grant programs such as TIGER, in particular, USDOT should be wary of awarding capital funds for transit that are not linked with a firm commitment—from the agency, from the federal government, or elsewhere—to ramping up operations as the physical improvements are made.

Such a reform need not be expensive. If USDOT committed to an across-the-board $1 subsidy per passenger trip nationwide—with the requirement that the money be used first and foremost to improve frequency—an increase in the federal gas tax of just 6.2 cents per gallon would cover the entire cost of the program, using 2014 gasoline consumption and ridership data as a baseline. While one dollar would not cover the entire per-ride subsidy that most transit agencies provide–and in the case of some very small operators, would actually represent a reduction in federal assistance–it would ideally provide enough breathing room that agencies could invest some money in running buses and trains more frequently. Greater frequency would, in turn, help to make transit a substantially more appealing option for commuters, and would reduce the maintenance burden on other parts of our transportation infrastructure.

There can be no doubt that capital assistance, including TIGER, has been a useful endeavor. But if the federal government’s goal is (as it should be) to encourage transit use, it’s clear that by relying on it exclusively, we’re looking for something under the streetlight that we’re never going to find.