Recently passed infrastructure legislation has put an emphasis on mobility, and the grant dollars are there to back it up. In our recent blog post, Back on Track, we discussed the funding opportunities available through the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Now that the 2022 grant deadlines have arrived, we have a follow-up: Genfare interviewed transportation policy and government relations expert Jason Pavluchuk about how the infrastructure bill has impacted transit, what to expect in 2023, and his thoughts on how transit agencies can prepare for next year:

It’s been almost a full year since the infrastructure bill has passed. How has it impacted transit and transit agencies?

Well, I think it’s been a busy year. Everyone from USDOT to transit agencies to vendors are getting accustomed to the new legislation. I think if I had to pick one word to describe it, I would choose overwhelming.

Will the same programs be available again next year?

Yes! Every program made available in 2022 will also be made available in 2023. Plus, there are actually a few more USDOT programs to come: the congestion relief program and the open research challenge.

I know there was a lot of pressure for agencies to get requests in this year. At some agencies, it seemed like grant applications was all they were working on. My hope is that everyone — from DOT to agencies to vendors — now has a year of these programs under their belt. I’d love to see everyone come into next year with a better understanding of how to best take advantage of this funding. We have four more years of these programs, so there is plenty of opportunity.

What are some of the key takeaways from last year’s process?

USDOT is putting their money where their mouth is. Sometimes administrations say they want to focus on certain things and then project selection looks a little different, but that’s not the case with this administration. When DOT says they want projects to reflect key priorities, they mean it, and those are the projects being selected.

How should transit agencies take that into consideration for next year?

Simply put, get creative. In years past a lean project and budget was what DOT was looking for. I don’t want to suggest that spending should be reckless, but USDOT is really placing an emphasis on outcomes. Agencies should think about ways to improve the projects they are planning. Making projects more holistic can help address the issues USDOT is asking to be addressed.

Can you elaborate?

Sure! Since it’s close to the holiday season (well close enough) I’ll use the analogy of hanging ornaments on the Christmas tree. For example, if a municipality has a road expansion project (the tree), it could add some additional elements (ornaments) such as complete streets, intelligent transportation systems, or transportation demand management that would address some of the Administration’s goals. Perhaps it could include funding for synchronized lights to cut idling, add a complete streets element to support active transportation, or add a commute trip reduction program. These ‘ornaments’ make a bland project sparkle and more likely to get considered for funding.

Is that the case with transit projects?

Absolutely. It’s a good idea to incorporate innovative enhancements to a bus or bus facility request, such as new service models to address transit deserts, first/last mile connections, and fare collection upgrades. These are all things that can improve a transit grant request.

Can transit agencies and vendors partner together on grant applications?

Yes, although there are several considerations here. The first is procurement rules, which are generally more of a local issue than a federal issue, since each agency has their own set of rules. But there is nothing in federal law or policy to discourage public sector entities and vendors from working together on submitting a grant proposal. In some cases, the project being proposed might just expand upon an existing relationship. In other cases, a new procurement may be required. But overall, I think there is an advantage to having the public and private sector work together on grant submissions.

There is a saying: something about rising tides lifting all boats. From the vendors’ perspective, there may be some risk of assisting in developing a project or program that you ultimately don’t win, but to use another overused analogy, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

What advice would you give transit agencies going into the 2023 grant cycle?

I have four pieces of advice:

  • Have a plan. We now have a decent understanding on what grants will come out when, and I expect USDOT will follow the same pattern in 2023 as they did in 2022.
  • Apply as much as possible. You would be surprised by how many agencies win grants across multiple programs.
  • Leverage the private sector. Turn to the expertise of your vendors for content and ideas.
  • Hang ornaments on the tree!