The Department of Transportation announced that it will soon start accepting applications for $527 million in grants to state and local governments as part of a third round of the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) program.

Applicants will be able to start applying for the grants by Aug. 22, according to the department's announcement last week.

TIGER first appeared as part of the stimulus package, when $1.5 billion in competitive grants was allocated to state and local governments for transportation projects. A second round, called TIGER II, was included in the 2010 budget and provided $600 million.

The latest round of funding is part of the 2011 budget the president signed in April after lengthy negotiations with congressional Republicans.

The final applications are due Oct. 3. Each grant will range from $10 million to $200 million. At least $140 million of the funding will go to rural projects.

The administration has touted the grants as a way to send the most money to the most deserving projects, ensuring the best use of limited taxpayer resources.

The DOT is seeking projects that:

  • improve the condition of existing facilities
  • contribute to the country's economic competitiveness
  • foster livable communities
  • improve energy efficiency and improve safety

The grants are slightly controversial. Historically, federal transportation grants have been based on formulas, but TIGER grants are discretionary -- the Transportation Department ultimately decides who gets the money. In theory, that's a laudable goal, as it would maximize the government's resources by awarding money to the best projects.

But there's been some criticism of the program and the way grantees are selected. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in May found that the "DOT did not clearly document its final decisions and rationale for selecting recommended TIGER projects." Critics, mostly Republicans, have said the discretionary nature of the grants allow the Obama administration to pick projects for political purposes.

The GAO has called on the DOT to disclose further information about the selection process to help watchdogs assess the department's merit-based approach to awarding grants.

Meanwhile, DOT has proposed a new $2 billion discretionary grant program for the upcoming 2012 fiscal year that would also be modeled after TIGER.

"Through the TIGER program, we can build transportation projects that are critical to America's economic success and help complete those that might not move forward without this infusion of funding," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "This competition empowers local communities to create jobs and build the transportation networks they need in order to win the future."

Below: Map of TIGER and TIGER II grants, courtesy of Transportation for America