Infrastructure Stimulus, Transportation, United States

Funding capital projects can be difficult in the best of times, but the effects of COVID-19 have resulted in extensive tightening of state and municipal budgets. As the U.S. awaits a potential infrastructure stimulus, no matter the outcome, obtaining funding through federal and state grant competitive programs will be critical in offsetting revenue losses and advancing project development and implementation.

These grant awards offer the most predictable funding options for this unpredictable time. By now we all must recognize that we are living through a once-in-a century circumstance and must act accordingly to advance project funding.

We recommend looking at the broader aspects of your project and gauging whether you can use those to gain as many points of grant funding as possible — but as you do, be careful to avoid potential errors that may knock you out of the running. If you are applying for a grant for a public transport electrification project, for example, consider the potential to tie the grant to transforming a diesel engine fleet to one that is electrified and how that can enter into sustainability, social equity, resiliency and climate change requirements.

Producing effective grant applications is an art and a science. Understanding the process and delivering a successful funding application can be the differentiator in your ability to implement your capital project. But there are many potential application missteps that can take you out of the running.

We explain five preparation pitfalls and measures to help you avoid them.

  1. Waiting for the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) before starting

Work should begin even before the NOFO is issued. Federal programs typically allot four to six weeks for grant application preparation, but that time goes quickly. Think ahead, reviewing and assembling potential application materials that will give you a head start when the NOFO is presented.

  1. Failure to strategize

A coherent strategy will make the most of funding opportunities. Consider grant applications and programs as well as your specific project. Expand your funding opportunities by looking into a range of grant programs. Place each grant program on a calendar, consider how the deadlines align and what elements are required when for each one. Determine where parts of developed grants can be adjusted and repurposed for other programs. This improves efficiency and cuts application costs.

Next, examine the broader funding case. If your project spans borders, look beyond state or municipal boundaries to gather more partners. While aligning these partnerships can be challenging, they can greatly improve funding odds. Partnering with other states or municipalities adds senators, state representatives and congresspeople as well as stakeholders who can express the project’s significance for the communities it would serve.

  1. A lackluster narrative

Your narrative tells the project’s story. Producing a compelling narrative can set your project apart by capturing its value to the community. While discussing traditional benefits is important, incorporating relevant attributes outside the customary points will help your project stand out. Think about the grant reviewer who combs through hundreds of applications — a unique angle can set your project apart.

Demonstrating passion for your project can resonate with reviewers even if they have never been to your part of the country. AECOM’s experienced professionals are adept at developing grant applications and know how and when to emphasize your project’s unique aspects and value and adjust the economic analysis to capture benefits unique to your project. For example, AECOM assisted the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority in securing TIGER and Federal Railroad Administration grants totaling $75 million to renovate Minnesota’s historic St. Paul Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, transforming the rail station into an intermodal hub for Amtrak, light rail, commuter rail, local and regional buses, and the future Midwest high-speed rail network.

  1. Dense or wordy applications

Narrative is important, but so is readability. Effective applications are eye-catching and easy to review. Avoid text-heavy and highly technical descriptions. Use simple words, where possible, to improve readability. Lay out the application graphically incorporating infographics, statistics and images that support your text. Conveying information in a digestible format enables the project story to shine through.

  1. Not proofreading or fact-checking

Reviewers will look closely at your application. Miscalculating your match or errors on your benefit/cost analysis (BCA) spreadsheet will disqualify your project. Check your numbers and proofread your narrative to prevent costly mistakes. Likewise, reviewers will look at risk — issues that might arise if the project goes forward. Be sure that technical feasibility, cost estimates and contingency are accurate. And have important elements such as environmental impact studies, permitting and travel forecasting completed.

As an infrastructure consulting firm, AECOM can deliver needed expertise in developing the BCA while also providing access to professionals who can complete these critical elements, significantly easing the grant application process. Turning to experts in developing the narrative and BCA, along with an attractive design and fully realized risk evaluations can secure funding for a project that will improve the community for years to come.

Originally published 08.24.2020

Authors: Toni Horst , Ken Sislak