The U.S. Department of Transportation launched the first of a series of webinars May 24 to teach people how to compete for Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development, or BUILD, discretionary grants.
The BUILD grants are meant as a replacement for the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program, which was popular with state and local agencies. BUILD grants support road, rail, transit and port projects.
The two-hour webinar featured a presentation by Robert Mariner, deputy director of DOT’s Office of Infrastructure Finance and Innovation. The bulk of the session, however, was dominated by a question-and-answer period for audience members.
Rural communities are likely to receive a good amount of attention under the BUILD program. Mariner said that during the fiscal 2017 round of grants 64% of funding went to rural areas.
“DOT intends to award a greater share of grants to projects in rural areas,” Mariner said. “[Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao] has made it very clear that she anticipates to focus more closely on those rural communities.”
Keith Gray, president of Gray Matter Consulting, was one of the webinar’s participants. Gray has been writing grants for the BUILD program since it began, under the moniker TIGER, in 2009. He sat in on the session because one of his clients is interested in possibly applying for a BUILD grant.
Gray said he has seen some larger municipalities have success through the program, but noted that the BUILD program could likely signal a renewed emphasis on rural communities. Rural areas face different challenges than urban ones, Gray said. For example, communities that have sparse, dispersed populations generally have less of a tax base and fewer links to jobs centers and health care.
“When I’ve talked to DOT program personnel, Congress clearly sent them a message that Congress wants rural applicants,” Gray said. “But they also want to show that rural clients have larger challenges of their infrastructure that cities don’t have, and towns and counties and parishes don’t have. Urban applicants have different options than rural applicants do in terms of finding revenue.”
Interested groups must submit applications for BUILD grants before July 19. One component of the application is a project narrative, which Mariner encouraged the audience to complete as thoroughly as possible. He said the narrative should spell out what issue the project seeks to resolve.
Mariner also recommended the use of supporting data in these narratives to substantiate claims that the project will improve safety.
“Your application needs to present a clear story as well as a project impact. Your project is essentially the solution for the problem you’ve laid out,” Mariner. “When you’re crafting your narrative, please provide some supporting data. That’s the type of data that will allow our evaluators to understand what the anticipated benefits would be.”
Partnerships with other agencies and private sector firms play an important role in the BUILD program, as they do in President Donald Trump’s infrastructure plan as a whole. The White House’s infrastructure funding plan unveiled in February would rely on nonfederal funds for $1.3 trillion in order to reach a top line of $1.5 trillion over 10 years.
Mariner emphasized the role of nonfederal revenue to boost transportation infrastructure investment. He said this nonfederal revenue could come in many forms, such as working with city councils to raise the gas tax or with the state legislature to put a question on the ballot about raising the state sales tax. Echoing Chao, he said every funding option is on the table.
However, he also noted that these partnerships need not be monetary in nature. He said firms could aid projects by simply sending in letters of support.
“It’s always good to have support from your community. We definitely encourage partnership. It’s not a negative if the partners are not financial partners,” Mariner said. “We‘re looking for new nonfederal revenue. As our secretary has touted, her goal is to push the ownership as well as the financial ownership back to the states as well as the localities.”