To Save Cities, Invest in Mass Transit

The Department of Transportation’s TIGER program helps communities thrive by funding innovative transportation projects. Congress shouldn’t let Trump do away with it.

February 23, 2018

Courtesy Town of Normal, IL

The U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER program was implemented back in 2009 with the goal, in its architects’ words, of funding “complex, innovative projects that did not fit into existing narrow federal funding silos.” Since then, the program, whose acronym stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, has given out more than $5 billion in grants to state and local governments to help build the kind of transportation infrastructure that’s been shown to boost smart development, increase mass transit ridership, and revitalize local economies.

The TIGER program has by all accounts been a tremendous success, earning bipartisan plaudits from mayors and other local leaders all over the country, from Denver, Indianapolis, and Nashville to Salt Lake City and Seattle. The $500 million or so that it gives out every year represents a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Yet the returns on this investment are real, long-lived, and shared by entire communities.

Last year, President Trump proposed eliminating all funding for TIGER as part of his 2018 budget. Congress wisely decided to keep it alive for at least another year, in defiance of the president’s wishes. Predictably, in his most recent budget Trump once again proposed killing the program. There will be no need for it, the White House says, under the president’s infrastructure plan—which, if enacted, would end up providing discretionary grants to local governments for transportation projects in much the same way that TIGER does.

Those assurances would be much more comforting were it not for the fact that (a) President Trump tried to kill TIGER last year before he had any semblance of an infrastructure plan on the table; and (b) lawmakers aren’t too keen on the president’s plan now that he does have one, for a variety of reasons, and seem unlikely to pass it in its current form.

If any lawmakers need an example of TIGER’s worth, they should pay a visit to Normal, Illinois, an exquisitely named town smack in the middle of the American heartland where evidence of the program’s value and efficacy is on full display. Nearly 20 years ago, concerned city officials and business leaders in Normal got together and made a fateful decision. Something had to be done to revive the urban core of this college town, population 50,000, halfway between Chicago and St. Louis. For decades, in a dynamic mirrored all over America, commercial development on the city’s outskirts had lured people away from the town center, where businesses dried up. Normal’s downtown was dying.

One factor in the decline, the officials well understood, was transportation. The local Amtrak station was ill-placed, too far from the town center to bring visitors in. Major roads converged downtown, but in a clumsy, confusing way that had the effect of demagnetizing what ought to have been an attractive center for shoppers, diners, students, and others. As for bike and pedestrian infrastructure, there was almost none to speak of. Nobody wanted to set up shop downtown because nobody wanted to go downtown. As the poet Gertrude Stein once said (of a different American city): There was no “there” there.

With the help of a Chicago urban planner, Normal embarked on an ambitious project to remake its core—chiefly by emphasizing transit and orienting new development toward it. Key to the transformation would be a relocated Amtrak station that would serve as a multimodal hub for other forms of transit: bus, bicycle, car, taxi, airport shuttle, and more. City codes were rewritten to accommodate pedestrian-friendly mixed-use development, with retailers and restaurants at ground level and apartments and office space above. A 34,000-square-foot children’s museum opened in 2004; construction on a nine-story hotel and conference center began a few years later. Finally, where the major roads converged downtown, a smartly designed roundabout was built, and within it a new public park―the true urban core that residents had long deserved.

Sweet Corn Fest held in Normal, Illinois’s revitalized downtown

Courtesy Town of Normal, IL

Everything was moving along more or less according to plan—and then the Great Recession of 2008 hit, just as the city was entering the home stretch. Practically overnight, the unfinished transit hub, the project that was going to hold everything else together, was thrown into jeopardy. Doubtful but desperate, officials applied in 2009 for a brand-new Department of Transportation grant—a TIGER program grant—that had emerged out of President Obama’s stimulus package. And to their great surprise, they were selected. Thanks to TIGER, Normal was able to secure $22 million in funding that took the city across the finish line.

The new transit hub opened in 2012; the city’s current mayor, Chris Koos, has made clear that the TIGER grant was the tipping point that made completion of the project possible. Today, Uptown Normal, as the city has rechristened its downtown, is a shining example of how transit-oriented development can transform the character, not to mention the tax base, of cities. The initial $50 million public investment in Normal’s urban core has already yielded an additional $220 million in private investment. What’s more, because the planners built sustainability into their vision, Normal also has a slew of other things to brag about. Uptown’s irrigation and fountain systems rely on captured rainwater that’s stored in a previously abandoned 76,000-gallon storm sewer, now an underground holding tank. And thanks to an ordinance it passed in the midst of its metamorphosis, the city has the distinction of being the first in America to require new buildings larger than 7,500 square feet (at ground level) to be LEED-certified.   

The TIGER program is exemplary, and in every way worth keeping. Everywhere it happens, transit-oriented development—thoughtfully designed and well implemented—continues to prove its long-term value as a public investment. What happened in Normal, in other words, isn’t unusual at all.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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