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Matching funds for riverport grant may be hard to come by for counties

Matching funds for riverport grant may be hard to come by for counties

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2010 9:05 pm

By JOHN BRANNON
Staff Reporter
In the beginning, there was TIGER 1.
Now comes TIGER 2.
But at a price tag of $1.26 million apiece, can Obion, Lake and Dyer counties afford the ticket to ride?
Is that T-I-G-E-R, as in big cat of the jungle?
No. That’s TIGER as in a handy acronym — the late President Lyndon Johnson would have called it bureaucratic gobbledegook — for “Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery.”
It all began back in February 2009 when Congress passed the American Investment and Recovery Act. The legislation appropriated $1.5 billion to fund federal grants for surface transportation improvements nationwide. The U.S. Department of Transportation, which administered the program, gave it the name, “TIGER.”
Just hype
USDOT hyped the grant program as “capital investments in surface transportation infrastructure.” In this context, the word, “infrastructure,” means ports, rails, highways, bridges and such. USDOT publicized TIGER and invited local and state governments to apply for grants ranging from a minimum of $20 million to a maximum of $300 million.
As you might imagine, all the king’s men scrambled to get a piece of the action. USDOT received a flood of applications from throughout the nation.
According to USDOT, TIGER — since referred to as “TIGER 1” to distinguish it from a follow-up program by the same name — was intended to “preserve and create jobs and promote economic recovery, invest in transportation infrastructure that will provide long-term economic benefits, and assist those most affected by the current economic downturn.”
Tailor-made
Such lofty language seemed tailor-made for what chairman Jimmy Williamson and others on the board of directors of the Northwest Tennessee Riverport Authority are trying to do: build a modern riverport at a place called Cates Landing on the west bank of an oxbow of the Mississippi River near Tiptonville in Lake County. To accommodate barge traffic, the U.S. Corps of Engineers has dredged the Cates Landing harbor, making it the deepest between St. Louis and New Orleans.
The new riverport would generate 400 construction jobs immediately and hundreds more in the future as industry located to the riverport’s 1,000-acre industrial park, they say. Too, the site would offer access not only to major highway and rail arteries but also to barge traffic on the Mississippi River.
In short, the new riverport would be a major boost in the economic development of rural northwest Tennessee.
With that in mind, Williamson and other officials were happily optimistic when they applied for a TIGER grant of about $28 million.
Hopes dashed
It was not to be. On Feb. 17, USDOT announced it had awarded a total of $1.5 billion to 50 local and state government to fund their individual projects. The Cates Landing project was not one of them.
But the City of Indianapolis was. It won approval for its application for $20 million to build an eight-mile urban bicycle and pedestrian network in the heart of its downtown area.
Did politics have a hand in the approval process? Williamson has yet to understand the rationale USDOT used in awarding the grants. He expressed the board’s disappointment and said they would try to find other sources of financing.
Round 2
USDOT has announced what it terms “TIGER 2,” meaning Round 2 of the grant program.
This time, $600 million is up for grabs. And it’s not Obama stimulus money; it’s money from the USDOT budget.
This time, there’s a Catch-22 syndrome in the mix. Even if the Port Authority’s request for $19 million is approved, it must pay a 20-percent matching fee of its own money, according to USDOT dictates.
Twenty percent of $19 million is $3.8 million. And $3.8 million divided three ways among Obion, Dyer and Lake counties is $1.26 million.
Why is the matching fee levied on those three counties?
Williamson has the answer.
“They own (Northwest Tennessee Riverport Authority),” he said. “It’s part of those three local governments. We are a political subdivision organized by state statute of all the three counties.”
The Tennessee Depart-ment of Transportation has allocated $100,000 to the Port Authority to write an application for the $19 million grant. Pre-applications must be filed with USDOT by July16; final applications by Aug. 23.
No way, José
Williamson said the scramble for USDOT TIGER 2 grants will be very competitive. “The criteria’s pretty hard to meet. Of course, we can do it, but it’s pretty tough,” he said.
Meanwhile, who pays the $3.8 million matching funds in the unlikely event that USDOT approves the application?
Lake County Mayor Macie Roberson said his county has already invested about $4 million in the riverport project, and it doesn’t have $1.26 million “just lying around.”
“The port authority would have to look to other funding to provide the match,” he said.
Nor does Obion County have the money, according to county Mayor Benny McGuire. “We’ve already put in $550,000, and I don’t think the county commission would put out any more money on that port,” he said. “There isn’t that much money ($3.8 million) in Dyer and Lake and Obion lying around. We just don’t have the money this year to do it.
“The county commission would have to think long and hard before they would do that.”
Dyer County Mayor Richard Hill could not be reached for comment.
Published in The Messenger 6.17.10

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