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Make It Happen: How to Secure Federal Funding

For decades, business leaders, engineers, economists and community leaders have advocated for more infrastructure spending. Deteriorating infrastructure is deleterious to public health and economic prosperity. In fact, the American Society for Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a “C-” in its 2021 report card for America’s infrastructure. While that score is an improvement from grades spanning the past two decades, it also highlights the need to reinvest in our physical assets.


With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), $1.2 trillion in funding will be available during the next five years to help rebuild and build new infrastructure across the U.S. Even though the bill is now a law, the work is just getting started. The Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Transportation and Energy have significant responsibility establishing new grant programs and initiatives while also getting money out the door. Meanwhile, municipal and state governments have a considerable role to play in getting grant approval and ultimately more money for their deteriorating infrastructure.

“Communities need to identify how to position themselves as desirable applicants when applying for federal infrastructure funding,” says Courtney Dunbar, site selection director at Burns & McDonnell. “Civic leaders understand that infrastructure is vital because it supports the economic stability of a region.”

As the administrators of public infrastructure assets, state and local governments need to be prepared for this influx of funding. Many recipients of this funding will have experience with grant applications, but there are important steps to take before applying for federal infrastructure grants. Potential recipients — including cities, counties, state agencies and special districts — need to develop or update their capital improvement plans (CIP) so they can look holistically at their assets. The comprehensive perspective provided by a CIP helps potential grant recipients determine which infrastructure is most in need of repair, which enhancements could catalyze future growth, and how these improvements align with the long-term vision of the community.

 

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With the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), $1.2 trillion in funding will be available during the next five years to help rebuild and build new infrastructure across the U.S. Even though the bill is now a law, the work is just getting started. The Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Transportation and Energy have significant responsibility establishing new grant programs and initiatives while also getting money out the door. Meanwhile, municipal and state governments have a considerable role to play in getting grant approval and ultimately more money for their deteriorating infrastructure.

“Communities need to identify how to position themselves as desirable applicants when applying for federal infrastructure funding,” says Courtney Dunbar, site selection director at Burns & McDonnell. “Civic leaders understand that infrastructure is vital because it supports the economic stability of a region.”

As the administrators of public infrastructure assets, state and local governments need to be prepared for this influx of funding. Many recipients of this funding will have experience with grant applications, but there are important steps to take before applying for federal infrastructure grants. Potential recipients — including cities, counties, state agencies and special districts — need to develop or update their capital improvement plans (CIP) so they can look holistically at their assets. The comprehensive perspective provided by a CIP helps potential grant recipients determine which infrastructure is most in need of repair, which enhancements could catalyze future growth, and how these improvements align with the long-term vision of the community.

Prioritize Projects With a Solid Capital Improvement Plan

Infrastructure is vital to build, maintain and sustain a thriving community and economy. When pursuing federal funding allocated through the IIJA, municipalities and other potential applicants need to have a vision — supported by economic and population-based data — outlining why the federal government should invest in their communities.

Building this vision can take the form of different types of plans, whether that is a comprehensive plan or economic development plan. For the purposes of the IIJA, developing or updating a CIP is an essential part of the grant application process. A robust, well-rounded CIP identifies capital projects, outlines available project funds, prioritizes improvements and offers a timeline for project completion. Maps, site photographs, financial charts and timelines are all essential elements to illustrate a community’s vision as outlined in the CIP. In most instances, a governing body needs to adopt the CIP and capital budget before applying for grants.

“Potential grant applicants need to think at the macro level,” Dunbar says. “Communities, utilities and other grant beneficiaries should access this funding not to patch up problem areas but to spur future growth. When applicants can demonstrate how federal funds will serve as a catalyst for community and economic development, their grant application will be viewed more favorably.”

Focusing on micro-level issues, such as one road or bridge that needs to be repaired, is insufficient, according to Dunbar, because it doesn’t convey the overall vision and objectives for the community. By understanding industrial clusters, the needs of local businesses and demographic trends, applicants can more effectively explain why their community deserves these funds. A detailed CIP can help civic leaders prioritize multiple projects that will enhance the quality of life for a city, county or state.

Write an Impressive Grant Application

A well-constructed CIP can aid in the grant application process, but applicants must still submit a grant proposal to access funding. As noted earlier, it’s best to define project goals through a CIP before applying for grant funding. Once needs and goals are identified, applicants can research the grants available to see which grant aligns with the projects a community needs to complete.

Applicants can take the following steps to start and manage a grant proposal:

  • When the grant opens, gather all documents and data outlined in the request for proposals.
  • Inform partners, such as businesses, chambers of commerce and community organizations, about the grant proposal and its timeline. These partners may provide data or resources to help secure funding.
  • When preparing the grant application, keep the text in the application succinct because award committees will have numerous applications to review. Applications with a straightforward and compelling description of the problem and potential benefits will stand out.
  • If a proposal is denied, consider requesting feedback from the granting agency.
  • Finally, follow all guidance provided by the grant-making agency after receiving the award. Organizations that receive grants should expect an audit, so keep copies of all receipts and reports to demonstrate compliance.

The passage of the IIJA opens the doors for numerous municipal, state and regional organizations to improve roads, install electric vehicle charging stations and modernize airports. The abundance of new funding may inspire civic leaders to send in grant proposals, but to secure funding, civic leaders need to demonstrate that their community has a long-term vision.

“This act provides large sums of money,” Dunbar says, “but grant applications are competitive and communities still need to put their best foot forward.”

Thought Leaders

Travis Bouslog

Director
1898 & Co.

Courtney Dunbar

Site Selection Director
Burns & McDonnell