This week, the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) held its first of several webinars on the rebranded Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants — which have been rebranded as the Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development grants (BUILD) grants.
These grants have been exceedingly popular with cities in the past to fund innovative and multimodal projects that can truly create economic opportunities in large and small cities. TIGER/BUILD grants give localities the opportunity to compete to fund their dream projects in transportation — and to jump-start development.
With a fresh $1.5 billion available for transportation projects across the nation, Congress seems dedicated to seeing significant projects move forward with their latest spending deal.
Recognizing that the webinars are limited and time is short, here’s a quick guide to some of key points that USDOT’s expressed as they rolled out instructions for the BUILD grants:
- BUILD’s Deadline Is Already Coming Soon
Let’s start with the key points localities need to know: Final applications by 8pm EDT on July 19, 2018.
- Expect More Rural Grants But Urban Will Get a Larger Take
For BUILD, there are two classifications for applicants: urban and rural projects. For urban projects, the locality must have a 20% local match in the funding, and the project must request a minimum of $5 million, while rural projects can be 100% federally funded and have a minimum request of $1 million. The maximum amount that can be awarded to one project is $25 million, and BUILD awards to a singular state will be capped at $150 million. USDOT has said that they plan on spreading the money between the two applicant pools, but there will be a greater share of projects in more rural areas.
- Pick Your Merit Criteria and Sell It
Firstly, a competitive application must demonstrate that it matches the merit criteria which are: safety, state of good repair, economic competitiveness, quality of life, environmental protection, innovation, partnership, and the creation of non-federal revenue for transportation infrastructure investment. Not all the merit criteria must be addressed in every application, so applicants should focus on the criteria that best fit their project. USDOT said that they would rather you fully explain your project in the terms of the most relevant criteria instead of stretching your application to cover all the criteria. It is a matter of quality over quantity.
- Look at the Top of Your Transportation To-Do List
Your application should also target a project that has some structure to it. Since the deadline to obligate funds and begin construction is September 30, 2020, it would be best to apply for something that has some degree of planning and readiness. It should also be noted that your goal should be to have the obligation of funds completed with construction beginning by June 4, 2020. A timeline that runs up close to the deadline might be a red flag to USDOT in selection, and if the deadline passes it could lead to the rescission of the awarded grant which no one wants to see. Applicants should ask themselves if their application considers readiness in terms of environmental review, the permitting process, the project’s technical feasibility, and the locality’s ability to manage project delivery on time. Environmental review and permitting are not required to be done at the time of application, but there should be a sense of the route to be taken and the class of action needed.
- Showcase Your Transportation Revenue Stream
This year, the USDOT included a new merit criterion for the BUILD grants: Non-Federal Revenue for Transportation Infrastructure Investment. Under this criterion, USDOT will assess the extent to which your application demonstrates local efforts to create new non-federal sources of revenue for transportation infrastructure spending. These could include any revenue already raised by your city since January 1, 2015, or could include future ways to raise revenue – such as a hike in the gas tax or the creation of new user fees dedicated specifically to transportation infrastructure. We know that cities have been raising revenues for such projects to their best ability for some time. Showing shared “skin-in-the-game” has been a mantra by the Administration when it comes to infrastructure but given that so many cities already are using the funding streams they can access, this is an opportunity to show how your city has already raised revenue on your own.
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- Be Nimble to Build Your Benefit-Cost Analysis
Benefit Cost Analyses (BCAs) are once again due with applications this year. A successful BCA should “identify, quantify, and compare expected benefits and costs” of the given project. USDOT will be looking for projects where the long run benefits of a project outweigh the initial costs. They do not expect there to be any major changes to the BCA guidelines, but they are making minor changes and updating values to keep the guidelines relevant. USDOT hopes to release the updated guidelines within the next few weeks so that applicants have the time to work with them and make a satisfactory BCA. Additionally, USDOT will host a webinar on May 31, 2018, to help explain the BCA process and provide clarity to applicants – which will be posted to the USDOT BUILD grant website [ link: https://www.transportation.gov/BUILDgrants ] at a later date. If you want to see who’s applied and their project costs compared to requests, this USDOT resource lists them. [https://www.transportation.gov/policy-initiatives/tiger/tiger-application-list]
- Applying Again Can Work But Listen Carefully Before You Submit
Finally, USDOT wants to help applicants to be successful. If you were a previous applicant, you can request a debrief on your application to speak with USDOT about why you were accepted or rejected for that round of funding in hopes to improve your odds of success in this round. The department is also happy to speak with potential applicants over the phone, or in person if they will be in Washington, DC. Their schedule tends to fill up fast with requests, so if you and your locality want to do such a call or meeting, it is recommended that you ask to set one up sooner rather than later. Additionally, you can send your questions via email to firstname.lastname@example.org and someone from the department will get back to you.
For city leaders, the bottom line is this: BUILD Discretionary Grants are a great opportunity for localities to complete projects that are long-standing goals and that align with one or more of their criteria. Following the advice USDOT is providing in their webinar series, as well as looking at USDOT’s website and the recorded webinars, will allow applicants to better prepare their application to the standards on which they will be assessed.
However, the time to start preparing your applications is now. USDOT needs to show progress to Congress in getting these funds out the door, and every city has a place where they could BUILD — so get out there and apply!
About the Author: Brittney Kohler is the program director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities.