The passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has the potential to transform the Capital Region from Baltimore to Richmond – if done right. The flipside: we could just as easily miss the proverbial boat. Working together, we can use this historic infusion of federal funding to return our transportation system to a state of good repair and make this region, in the words of our Board Chair Peter Scher, the most inclusive and connected in the country.
To maximize the region’s return on the BIL investments, regional leaders must focus on five key strategies:
1. Ensure Our Capital Programs and Projects are “Shovel Worthy”
The 2009 American Rescue and Recovery Act (ARRA) focused on “shovel ready” projects to get money out the door as quickly as possible; the Biden Administration, however, wants to encourage transportation leaders to invest in “shovel worthy” projects. These are defined as having the strongest return on their investment and meeting the national goals articulated by Secretary Buttigieg: state of good repair, emissions reductions, safety, economic development, job creation, and racial equity. To start, our regional transportation agencies need to review their capital infrastructure programs to identify the most “shovel worthy” projects that have the best chance of securing federal support.
2. Assess Our Ability to Match Federal Funds
A key requirement to receive federal funding is the ability for local governments and transportation agencies to match federal dollars. The lion’s share of BIL funding will come through formula programs, allocated based on factors such as population and the use and extent of highway and transit networks, among other factors. These programs typically require the lowest matching requirements at or around 10-20% of total grant funding.
That said, BIL has turbocharged federal discretionary grant programs, providing more than $125 billion to the US Department of Transportation (USDOT) to use toward competitive grants over the next five years. These grant programs typically require a non-federal match of 20%. Applications that exceed the minimum matching requirements – typically higher for urban projects and as high as 60% for transit projects – are deemed more competitive, as smaller federal contributions allow USDOT to fund more projects throughout the country.
In sum – our transportation agencies must assess their projected funding levels over the next decade to ensure we have adequate funding to match federal grant programs for the region’s “shovel worthy” projects.
3. Assess the Talent Needed to Build & Operate the System
Our potential to maximize our region’s benefit from BIL hinges on our transportation agencies’ capacity and talent to properly manage the additional formula funds, to compete for grants, to expertly manage construction contracts, and to operate the new transportation systems. Some of the region’s local jurisdictions do not have grant managers or dedicated staff that can track the unprecedented upcoming grant schedules, coordinate between public and private partners, and execute successful grant strategies.
If transportation agencies cannot prove that they are good stewards of federal dollars, we will lose their competitive edge for grants. Unfortunately, the Capital Region has a history of federally funded projects that have been delayed or experienced cost overruns due to politics, poor management, or unforeseen challenges. To rise and meet this opportunity, our region’s transportation agencies must conduct a review of their project management capacities and prioritize hiring more staff to ensure delivery of existing projects both on time and on budget.
Having the right staffing levels is also critical to efficient systems operations, whether that be more bus operators driving on new dedicated bus lanes, or more operations experts who can quickly clear roadways after crashes or weather events. More capital projects will not solve operational challenges; we must focus on solving these problems by ensuring our transportation agencies have the talent, staff, and resources they need to be effective.
4. Start Planning Processes Today for Priority Projects
To successfully compete for grant funding, projects must be viable. That means transportation agencies should have already conducted a minimum threshold of feasibility, engineering, and design work. Starting today, our leaders should start asking their transportation agencies to begin initial plans, project specifications, and preliminary engineering reports for the priority “shovel worthy” projects they identified in strategy #1. This preliminary work will enhance an application’s competitiveness and enable our priority projects to secure larger planning and construction grants.
5. Tell the Public What to Expect
It is the responsibility of each of our transportation agencies to publicly present their strategy and expected outcomes from BIL’s federal investments. This reporting should include projected revenue levels, new priority projects enabled by the funding, and clearly stated outcomes and targets, such as fatality reductions, economic productivity, jobs created, improved access for low-income and minority populations, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. The public should not have to guess how and why this money is being spent, or if it’s making a difference. Clear, detailed communication will build greater trust in our collective ability to deliver meaningful results.
Prioritizing these five strategies will maximize the region’s return on the historic federal infrastructure investments and speed the delivery of a transformed infrastructure network – which means more people can get to more jobs and generate a strong economy that drives shared prosperity for all. The Partnership is excited by the future that BIL can unlock. We are ready to work side by side with our leaders to deliver results that will change the Capital Region for the better.
Stay tuned for our next piece: Regional Projects and Priorities that Appear “Shovel Worthy”