/ Articles / Transportation Troubleshooting: Seven Essential Best Practices for the Changing Federal Infrastructure Funding Opportunities

Transportation Troubleshooting: Seven Essential Best Practices for the Changing Federal Infrastructure Funding Opportunities

Paula Hammond on September 7, 2023 - in Articles, Column

With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, local and state governments as well as publicly owned utilities have vast opportunities to secure funding for a wide range of infrastructure projects. This law and Biden Administration policies also highlight funding criteria to emphasize sustainability, greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions, climate-change resiliency, equity, environmental justice and rural development.

While these values had previously been incorporated in federal grant criteria to some extent, the scales have now tipped significantly toward these priorities and the benefits these investments will bring to communities and regions.

Public-agency staff seeking federal grants must understand how these priorities shape grant decisions. For example, all state departments of transportation grant programs now have more funding dedicated to planning and supporting the development stage of projects than has been available for these stages in the past. This change reflects the recognition that planning is essential to shape projects that can meet equity and environmental goals, and it should be considered in every public infrastructure agency’s federal funding strategy.

In talking with my colleagues about the current federal infrastructure funding landscape, we’ve come up with seven essential best practices. They are consistent with what WSP—in our extensive federal grant development and management work for local and state governments—has always recommended, with some twists to reflect the current federal policy environment.

1. Develop a Cohesive Strategy

Infrastructure development and asset-management strategies should reflect an understanding of federal grant programs’ eligibility rules, schedules, criteria, priorities and procedures.

“This is really the only way to ensure your agency’s candidate projects are competitive,” says my colleague Bryan Luellen, planning strategy and grants lead at WSP.

2. Start Early

Long before a notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) or funding opportunity announcement (FOA) is released, agency staff, grant consultants and board leaders should strategize how to match their priority projects with available programs.

“Identify your portfolio of projects early and look for ways to align them with eligibility and rating criteria, including pre-grant requirements,” says Alfonso Hernandez, assistant vice president for Advisory at WSP.

3. Prioritize Projects for Grant Funding that Demonstrate High Benefits

Those of us building and maintaining public infrastructure can easily see the benefits of our work—but federal proposal reviewers want a rigorous Benefit Cost Analysis (BCA) that ideally shows the project will yield a minimum of 1.5 times its cost in public benefits through its lifetime.

An economist should be engaged to help perform these BCAs. In addition to traditional benefits—such as savings in travel time and fuel as well as improved safety—outcomes such as reduced GHGs and improvements to safety and mobility for lower-income communities should be quantified.

4. Maximize Support of Partners

It may seem an obvious best practice to collaborate with other jurisdictions on projects such as major transportation or transit upgrades, but this aspect of infrastructure development often isn’t given enough attention.

Collaboration can make a city, town or county’s grant proposal more competitive and help avoid headaches that sometimes occur when jurisdictions left out of the planning process voice objections to the project.

5. Engage Early With and Quantify Benefits for Lower-Income Communities

Under President Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments in clean energy and climate-change resiliency should go to disadvantaged communities.

“The administration is also prioritizing projects that improve equity, redress prior inequities and create economic opportunities,” adds Hernandez.

6. Have a Compelling Narrative

Grant narratives should be written clearly and concisely, with adequate background, description of needs and challenges, and a compelling vision for how the grant being sought will meet needs as well as enhance the community and region.

7. Keep It Simple(r)

Federal grant reviewers are busy people, so make sure you get your key messages across with concise wording. Use infographics, call-out text boxes and other design techniques to convey your quantitative data.

With the long formats of federal grant applications, some repetition is necessary, but trim the repetitive text as much as possible.

These are exciting times in infrastructure—a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure funding for projects that will benefit people and communities for the next century. But the challenges of securing federal grant funding are just as tough and complex as ever—perhaps more so.

To win funding in this environment, agencies must perform at the top of their game and keep up with current priorities and policies. 


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About Paula Hammond

Paula Hammond is senior vice president and national multimodal market leader, WSP USA; email: [email protected].

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