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Urgency Meets Opportunity: $3 Billion This Year Alone to Build & Repair Community Connections

$3 Billion This Year Alone to Build and Repair Community Connections Through Safe, Equitable Pedestrian, Bicycle, and Transit Improvements.

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A parent and kindergartner who have to dart across a 12-lane arterial separating their home from the child’s school. A business owner whose corner market nourished a generation of neighbors but was cut off from customers when the interstate bisected the community. A dad willing and able to work at the understaffed warehouse across town but with no reliable public transit to actually get there. These are the people too long left behind by our transportation infrastructure and investments. These are the people we need to be connecting to the places and opportunities that will enable them to thrive. Our communities require safe, equitable, and green mobility options. The need for connected communities is – and has been – urgent.

Transportation infrastructure has historically caused harm to communities, particularly those that are already vulnerable. However, we currently have an unprecedented opportunity to repair and improve community connectivity through the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods (RCN) Program. This program aims to fund projects that enhance safety, connectivity, and mobility through walking, bicycling, transit, and other means. The RCN program is currently accepting applications for up to $3.353 billion in planning and construction grants. Applicants submit one application, which is then considered for two programs:

  • The Neighborhood Access and Equity (NAE) Program ($3.15 billion) focuses on improving community connectivity such as walkability, safety, and affordable transportation access, particularly in places where there are barriers to community connectivity or negative impacts to people or the environment, especially in communities that have been made vulnerable by historic and/or contemporary policy, funding, and infrastructure decisions. There is funding for planning and capacity building activities in underserved communities as well as capital construction. This program is brand new as it was created by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.
  • The Reconnecting Communities Pilot program ($198 million) is a pilot program created in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and it specifically focuses on removing, retrofitting, or mitigating existing man-made transportation facilities that create barriers to community connectivity, mobility, access, or economic development. It funds both planning and capital construction.

This blog post summarizes key takeaways and questions and answers about the programs from an August 3, 2023 webinar hosted by the Transportation Equity Caucus, and planned by the League of American Bicyclists, National Resources Defense Council, PolicyLink, and Safe Routes Partnership.

Panelists included:

  • Spencer Finch, Alta
  • Andy Clarke, Toole Design
  • David Wheaton, NAACP Legal Defense Fund
  • Cody Brandt, Hund Capital
  • Marisa Jones, Safe Routes Partnership

Where can I find more information on the Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Program?

Why is it so important to apply this year before September 28, 2023?

It’s crucial to apply this year as the NAE program received a substantial amount of funding from the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which will only be available until September 2023. Of the NAE funds, at least 40 percent (up to $1.26 billion) will be distributed to economically disadvantaged communities. There’s no guarantee that this funding will be available in the future, so it’s important to act now.

The RCN program offers $3.53 billion in funding to advance community-centered transportation projects, prioritizing those that benefit underserved, overburdened, or disadvantaged communities. This presents a significant opportunity for local and state governments, nonprofits, and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to improve safety, connectivity, and mobility through walking, bicycling, transit, and more.

What is a specific next step to take to apply for this program?

To begin the process, applicants need to register for a Unique Entity Identifier (UEI), a process that can take a month to complete. If you’re going to be the applicant (as opposed to a partner or supporter), you need to register. There are simplified registration requirements for entities that just want to get a grant (and not do other business with the government). They mostly want straightforward things like contact information, size of entity, etc. There is also a help number, where you can speak to someone who can walk you through the process: https://sam.gov/content/about/contact.

Because applications are due September 28, 2023, interested applicants should apply for a UEI as soon as possible and then review the next steps to apply for RCN that US DOT has laid out on their website. Applicants will also register with ValidEval. There are unique links for planning grants and construction grants.

How should I select a project?

Start by reviewing the types of projects the program funds and the merit criteria on which applications will be judged. Then, review your plans for projects that are eligible and you believe would score well on the merit criteria. If you want to apply for a construction grant, then you should look for projects within existing plans that meet these criteria. Or, if you have a project in mind that isn’t in a plan, or isn’t ready to build, then consider a planning grant.

We would suggest reading through the goals of the program on page 3 of the Notice of Funding Opportunity. Also on page 3, you’ll find more information about the three different types of projects it funds – plans, construction projects and Regional Challenge grants. Page 13 lists out eligible projects, and page 9 lists eligible entities. Page 29, Section E. Application Review Information, lists the merit criteria that will be used to judge applications.

The Neighborhood Access and Equity (NAE) program also includes regional challenge grants. This is an opportunity to bring in multiple stakeholders to address a regional issue or concern. This is a good opportunity for applicants from places with economic opportunity imbalance (for example: jobs in places where there is no transit access of housing).

How can my community meet the local match requirement?

For Neighborhood Access and Equity grants in disadvantaged communities, there is no local match required for either planning or construction grants.

For Reconnecting Communities, a 20 percent match is required for planning grants, and a 50 percent local match is required for construction grants, however up to 30 percent of the local match may come from other federal sources.

On a positive note, because a local match is required on nearly all federally-funded transportation projects, some public sector applicants may have a routine way of handling this. Grant recipients may also use in-kind contributions toward local match requirements so long as those contributions meet the federal legal requirements. In-kind contributions may include compensation for community members’ time, materials, pro bono work provided to the project by third parties, and donations from private sponsors. In practice, this can mean quantifying an hourly rate for volunteers time, counting the value of renting a facility if it is donated for a meeting, etc. Applicants may also wish to approach local community foundations or philanthropic organizations for assistance with the match.

The Department of Transportation is specifically interested in funding disadvantaged communities. How do I know if my community meets their definition?

Definitions for the RCN program can be found in the Notice of Funding (NOFO) on page 40 Section H.1.

DOT encourages applicants to use the Climate & Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST), a tool created by the White House Council on Environmental Quality, that helps federal agencies identify disadvantaged communities. Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) has created a more user friendly version of the CEJST here.

What partnerships should be demonstrated in a strong application?

Partnerships are part of the merit criteria for this grant opportunity. This is particularly important for the Regional Partnerships Challenge grant. Many applicants demonstrate the partnerships involved in their potential project through letters of support. Types of partners should include elected officials and public agencies from local, county, and state governments, as well as metropolitan planning organizations for urbanized areas. Critically, if applying for a capital construction grant, the owner of the facility must be on board. Other partners include neighborhood associations, local schools, affinity and advocacy groups led by and serving Latinx, Black, Indigenous, Asian, and other people of color, housing partners, environmental groups, bicycle, pedestrian, and transit advocacy groups, tenants’ rights organizations, and more. Tip: look at the Administration’s priorities listed in the NOFO and convene partners to demonstrate your project’s merits on these evaluation criteria.

Is there a required community engagement component for the application?

Community engagement is very important and is part of the merit criteria. See page 27 of the NOFO for more information.

Should we apply for planning funds or capital construction funds?

Applicants should take into account a few considerations when deciding whether to apply for construction or planning funds. For starters,

  • Is your project “shovel ready?” To be shovel ready means that all planning has been done: preliminary engineering completed, right-of-way acquired, environmental impacts reviewed, and – importantly – the owner of the facility is fully on board. If a project is not yet shovel-ready, a community should not apply for a capital construction grant. Capital construction grants also come with a match requirement: up to 50 percent for Reconnecting Communities projects.
  • Planning grants cover a broad range of eligible activities under the RCN program. Professional planning (the work needed to get projects shovel ready – feasibility assessments, pre-engineering, studies, etc.) is an eligible use of funds and – uniquely – robust community engagement is an eligible use of funds. Keep in mind, the RCN planning grants allow you to do much more than professional planning: community involvement, assessment of environmental burdens, and development of strategies to mitigate displacement.

What makes a compelling application?

A compelling application tells a story of the goals of your community, the challenges you now face, and how the project will help meet those goals and eliminate barriers to mobility. Make sure that story is authentic to your community and back it up with data. Consider including both historical facts and contemporary impacts.

Remember that partnerships matter. The DOT is looking for projects that are widely supported, not just by government entities, but by the people and communities the project will impact.

US DOT will also be looking for your ability to implement the project. For communities that will need help on implementation, consider reaching out to your State Department of Transportation and asking for their support.

Use your application narrative and partnerships to demonstrate how your project helps advance Administration goals, including: Climate Change and Sustainability, Equity and Justice40, Housing Supply, Safety, Workforce Development, Job Quality, and Wealth Creation, and if applicable, Rural and Tribal Communities.

What technical concerns might evaluators be looking for?

  • The US DOT wants to fund projects they know will be successfully implemented. That means they are looking for well thought out projects – like projects that have been in a plan or visioning project in the past, and with government and community support.
  • The DOT wants to fund projects in communities that have not benefited from US DOT grants in the past, but also wants to make sure the applicant is ready to implement the project. A couple ways you can show your ability to implement:
  • Pick a project that has wide community support. Any community engagement you do ahead of time will make your application more competitive.
  • For construction projects, pick something that is already in the plan.
  • Make sure to pick something that is doable. If you have a vision for amajor change, perhaps apply for the first phase of that project. That doesn’t mean a local government must have the ability to do all the construction, but you need to formally enlist partners to help.
  • Understand the process. These grants are reimbursement grants. So the applicant does the work and then receives the funding. With all the new grant funding over the last few years, there have been some local governments that got grants not understanding they would not get the money upfront.
  • You don’t have to do it alone! If your local government will need help in the construction phase, talk with your state Department of Transportation and ask them if they will be willing to help with administration of the grant. The US DOT appreciates that outreach.

For NGOs

  • If you are applying for a planning grant, you should have support from the owner of the facility, be that the state, county, city or other local authority. US DOT does not want to fund plans that can’t later be implemented. You will need the owner of the highway/bridge, etc. on board.

Should I submit multiple applications?

A local government or NGO is allowed to apply for more than one grant, but you will be competing against yourself. You may wish to prioritize your top project and submit one application.

Is it better to clump or splinter projects? Can I include multiple projects in one application?

An application can include a number of smaller projects that all directly respond to the same problem. For instance, you can fill in gaps in an active transportation network throughout the community or build multiple bicycle and pedestrian bridges across the same barrier, or do similar interventions addressing stormwater, noise or air pollution from one facility.

However, US DOT discourages combining unrelated projects, or projects at different stages in the process into one application. So if part of your project is ready for construction, and the other part needs more planning, consider submitting two applications.

How much should I apply for? What is the average amount awarded for planning?

This is a really hard question because it is the first year of the Neighborhood Access and Equity program. While Reconnecting Communities grants have some limits – a $2 million maximum for planning, and a $5 million minimum for construction – the NAE program has no limits.

We would suggest looking at grants awarded over the last two years that are similar in scope to yours. Those could be last year’s Reconnecting Communities, Safe Streets for All, and RAISE grants awards.

We also suggest making sure that whatever you ask for is something you know your community can implement, and that you can make that case in your application. It is important to know that these grants are reimbursable; you do not receive an upfront check for the work, so demonstrating the capacity to handle and implement the award may influence the size grant you apply for.

Should I apply for NAE, RCP, or both?

US DOT will evaluate your eligibility for either, but consider only applying for NAE if you need no match for planning or a lower match for capital.

The program emphasizes the relationship between housing and transportation. What types of housing partners should we involve or consult in our application?

Applicants from major metro areas should include their local public housing authority. Every state has a state housing plan, typically referred to as a “qualified action plan”, so applicants in and outside of major metro areas can use that plan to determine additional housing partners to include.

How important is it to address housing in the application process?

It is most important if you are applying for a Community Partnership Challenge Grant or for a planning grant. Consider working with housing interests in your application, and make sure to read through the merit criteria under access.

If your community has taken steps to address displacement or to increase housing supply in the area of your construction project, this should help your application. If not, consider reaching out to housing stakeholders to ask for their support of your application.

What types of policies that address displacement pressures might evaluators be looking for?

One of the purposes of the RCN is to help remedy communities that were divided due to the construction of physical infrastructure like highways. Now, we have a different types of displacement pressure: gentrification and not being able to stay in one’s community due to rising rent, loss of affordable housing, ban on tenants’ housing choice vouchers, source of income discrimination, lack of eviction protections, etc.

To lessen the risk of investment or re-investment in a community causing additional displacement, evaluators will be interested to see how communities are proactively preventing future displacement or mitigating contemporary harms. Evaluators may be interested in potential policies such as a housing plan that includes transportation, a transportation plan that includes housing, rezoning for higher residential density to accommodate greater demands near transit, inclusionary zoning, eviction protections, tenants’ housing choice vouchers, and policies preventing against source of income discrimination.

We appreciate the wisdom and experience shared by our panelists and highly encourage interested parties to submit applications! This is a unique moment in time to maximize federal investments in building and repairing community connectivity. We hope you will seize the opportunity!

Courtesy of NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Expert Blog, By Mende Yangden, Transportation Policy Analyst, People & Communities Program

This blog post was collaboratively written by Marisa Jones (Safe Routes Partnership), Mende Yangden (National Resources Defense Council), and Caron Whitaker (League of American Bicyclists).

 
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