The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) promises to inject $1.2 trillion into fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, which includes billions of dollars set aside for transportation projects. This additional funding is an opportunity municipalities, counties and local communities can’t ignore. But with so many new programs, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Taking a strategic approach can help communities identify and prioritize projects to prepare for grant opportunities before they are released.
Locating Grant Opportunities
Available federal grants can be found at grants.gov, with a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) published for each opportunity across various classifications and agencies. Each grant opportunity has its own webpage with information such as the NOFO, eligibility requirements, selection criteria, required forms, and the application deadline. Professionals with experience securing grants can help you sift through all the grant programs to find the opportunities that are right for you.
Whether a grant application is completed in-house or contracted out, there are steps you can take before an opportunity is even published that could help streamline the process, including:
Identify projects that need funding. Communities should consider developing a strategic plan with a vision for where they want to be in 20 or more years and a master plan to provide a road map for how they will get there. Additionally, communities should start to develop potential projects through safety, resiliency or master thoroughfare plans, and produce engineering and construction feasibility studies to obtain the rough order of magnitude costs for potential projects. Through these planning processes, communities can gather the data and support that will be needed for grant applications instead of waiting for the NOFO to be released, when they will only have weeks to select a project, write the narrative, put together the benefit-cost analysis (BCA), and submit the application.
Map out potential needs within your community. Begin looking at which grant programs address the projects identified within your community when the grants become available, and what requirements applications and projects must meet to be eligible. Start with organizing any information you already have such as data collected through planning processes, community surveys and engagement efforts to identify tangible areas with the greatest needs. The opportunities are substantial for infrastructure projects related to safety, resiliency and disadvantaged communities, and these themes can be included within a wide variety of projects.
Recognize the current administration’s priorities. Funding priorities can change with different White House administrations. For example, preference may be given to projects that address such factors as operational resiliency, sustainability, multimodal safety, environmental considerations and environmental justice (EJ). These themes are often baked into the selection criteria and, depending on the project, they can be part of the eligibility requirements as well. However, even if they are not, weaving the current administration’s priorities into the various narrative sections and making sure they are embedded in the BCA will make your application stand out.
Understand your community designation. A historically disadvantaged community will have different needs than an affluent, urban area and could receive special consideration depending on the grant program. To maximize your chances, be sure to identify all applicable designations for the census tracts impacted by your project. Funding pools are often split between urban and rural communities, which can give you a better sense of your competition for a given opportunity. An application may also be more competitive if it could benefit residents of more than one community, such as a bike path or public transit expansion throughout a county.
Collaborating with other communities or agencies, like the state’s department of transportation or a metropolitan planning organization, could provide additional sources of funds for matching requirements or unlock new opportunities, depending on a grant program’s eligible entities. Support from these agencies is sometimes required by grant programs, but always encouraged.
Meaningfully engage your community. Stakeholder engagement and community support are important for any project and should be included in your grant application. Particular emphasis should be given to intentionally engage historically underrepresented and EJ communities. After conducting your outreach, you may have to adjust your project parameters in response to the public feedback. Giving yourself time to do so and including that information in the grant application shows you are really listening to the public and not just checking a box to secure available funding.
Assessing community support could also provide avenues for matching funds from another public agency, a nonprofit organization or a private partner interested in funding a portion of the project.
A few additional things worth considering:
- If possible, conduct or plan for any required environmental review of a project in advance of applying for grant funding to determine if the project complies with federal, state or local environmental standards and demonstrate a smooth environmental review process.
- Secure cost estimates for all project expenses, which may include labor, materials, equipment, and environmental mitigation.
- Acquire or plan for the necessary right-of-way (ROW).
- Gather letters of support from stakeholders such as elected officials, regional planning organizations and community leaders.
- Be creative with the language in the application to best tell your story but be sure your claims are backed by sound methodology.
Preparation is key to a smooth and successful grant application, so an early start on any of these activities can result in a less stressful submission process that just might tip the grant in your favor.
A well-constructed capital improvement plan (CIP) can help municipal and state governments identify, prioritize and develop competitive applications for federal funding.