Small towns seek to compete for historic infrastructure funds

Last November, Congress passed the $1.2 trillion mark. infrastructure legislationputting a historic amount of money into municipal pockets to fund pipelines, bridges, broadband and more.

During the last decade, nearly $10 billion in infrastructure funding was allocated through a discretionary grants program that was founded in 2009 as part of the Obama administration’s Great Recession stimulus package. Known today as the RAISE grants, the program awarded funds to 90 rural and urban centers nationwide in 2021. While half of the funds were directed to rural projects, experts say municipalities were turned away due to funding limits, and it’s been difficult for smaller, low-resource communities to build competitive apps that receive funding.

Yonah Freemark, senior research associate at the Urban Institute, sees a strong need in communities across the country to receive help applying for these grants, noting that federal grants have complicated proposals that can cost a lot of money. money to develop.

“Not every city is New York or Chicago, with the resources and personnel to come together with this kind of big proposal,” Freemark said. “So more needs to be done to fill the void and ensure that every community can benefit from the grant money.”

The Biden administration hopes to address this inequity with a new publication 465-page guide that tells cities how to apply for these funds.

Jill Boudreau, mayor of Mount Vernon, Wash., said her small rural town of more than 35,000 people had avoided federal funding for at least 15 years because community leaders didn’t believe she had the resources to hire grant writers. to complete the complex application process and compete for the grant. But she’s impressed with the federal government’s recent guidelines, which she says are the clearest instructions she’s seen.

In 2021, Boudreau submitted his very first grant application. Although the project was not selected, Boudreau said in an email that his project “literally checks all the requirements” of the new US Department of Transportation (DOT). Notice of Funding Opportunity for RAISE grants, so she is reapplying in 2022.

Mount Vernon is competing for electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure funding with a $46 million proposal for a 275-space parking lot with 75 EV charging stations serving a mixed-use public building called Mount Vernon Library Commons, which includes a library, community center, and commercial kitchen, Boudreau said. If built, she said, Mount Vernon, conveniently located along the Interstate 5 corridor between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, would host one of the world’s largest public charging centers. in the USA.

“Most of the time, it seems like the ‘ready-to-go’ projects are the best,” Boudreau said, noting that electric vehicle infrastructure could be built in 18 months. “I now have great hope because of the amounts invested in these grant programs. Our county will see a big difference.”

Brittney Kohler, legislative director for transportation and infrastructure at the National League of Cities, has some recommendations for cities like Mount Vernon preparing to receive funding: First, establish a community’s most important needs. , then prioritize essential projects that the community cannot complete without additional funds. Support. Cities must find a match for their proposal within the 375 grant programs available — specializing in projects like drinking water, bridges or bike paths — before collecting data, identifying stakeholders and reaching out to potential partner organizations. Once their paperwork is in order, communities need to determine who to contact for their specific request and what deadlines need to be met.

More importantly, if their project fails in early rounds of funding, Kohler said it’s important to remember that there’s five years of funding available under the infrastructure bill, so municipalities can resubmit five times.

“Now is the time to showcase old projects, dust off applications, and tell the stories of economic growth and recovery our country wants to see in a post-COVID-19 world,” Kohler said. “Let’s be honest, so many of the applications that the DOT had to turn down were turned down not on the merits of the project, but because they didn’t have enough money for everyone, and that changed with the introduction of this law project.”

Kohler’s biggest message to local communities is that they have a new chance to receive far more competitive funding than city officials have ever seen before. “They will definitely be considered, but we want them to prepare, and prepare soon, so they don’t miss an opportunity to better their communities.”

While small towns like Mount Vernon have embraced this new chance, Boudreau said she was “always” concerned that grants would be funneled to towns with more resources or staff, even if councils had “a great intention”. Boudreau believes “100%” in setting aside funds exclusively for rural jurisdictions, but said she would be happy with a short DOT consultation just to determine if her city is on the right track.

Instead of this help, like other cities in the country, Mount Vernon recently hired a lobbyist. “It’s a small town expense,” Boudreau wrote, “but we’re a long way from Washington, D.C.”

Kohler compared hiring lobbyists for community representation to hiring for other municipal needs, like snow removal, waste hauling or cybersecurity networks. “They’re looking for people to help them find projects, match them and support the process, but it’s not something that has to be done. It’s something they choose to do,” said Kohler said.

But leaders like Boudreau believe it’s a big investment. “We are so behind in infrastructure funding in this country. So far, funding has gone to higher impact projects with high prices,” she said. But with the latest bill, “we have a chance to make progress on needs. Notice I didn’t say ‘catch up’ – just progress.”

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