Getting Your Piece of the Infrastructure Pie: A How-To Guide for the Perplexed*

One of our favorite marketing sloganspie-1over the years has been, “We help you get your piece of the grant pie.” Well, Congress is cooking up the mother of all grant pies with the “infrastructure” component of President Obama’s stimulus package. If you’re wondering how your agency can get a bite of this tasty treat, you’re not alone. Peter Sanders and Christopher Conkey of the Wall Street Journal report in Mayors Struggle to Get Piece of Stimulus that even Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been unable to figure out how to get his fork in. I think Mayor Villaraigosa actually knows perfectly well how to step up to feed at the federal trough but was just being coy for a reporter not steeped in the ways of government largesse. After all, Mayor Villaraigosa was Speaker of the California House of Representatives and knows more than most about this topic. Essentially, the Mayor is unhappy that President Obama has said to no to earmarks, so he can’t just hang his favorite projects on the bill like Christmas ornaments. Instead, he and his minions will have to work for the money—no wonder he’s unhappy. For those readers not in the know, here is how the stimulus funds are likely to find their way to you . . .

Despite all the breathless reporting on the stimulus package, no story I’ve seen explains how thunder in Washington, DC will make it rain Pennies from Heaven** in Los Angeles. The answer depends on how the feds decide to get the money on the street, which will be in the bill that eventually emerges from Congress. Here are the four basic possibilities, assuming no earmarks:

1. Congress can fund programs, new or old, to be administered at the federal level through some sort of competitive RFP processes. In this case, any eligible entity can pitch any eligible project by submitting a proposal, which is more or less the way most discretionary grant dollars are distributed.

2. Congress could use the existing Economic Development Administration (EDA) Public Works and Economic Development Program to fund infrastructure and facility projects. Unlike any other federal agency, however, EDA uses a byzantine system of regional Economic Development Representatives (EDRs), which have to agree to pass your project up the food chain by inviting a “pre-application.” To get this invitation to the big dance, the project generally has to be listed in the region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), which replaced the earlier Overall Economic Development Plan (OEDP) process. We’ve threaded our way through this particular maze many times, resulting in lots of funded EDA grants; although it’s daunting at first, it is eminently doable.

3. Congress can block grant funds to the states, who can then use existing systems to distribute the funds. For example, highway transit funds could be sent to states’ transportation departments, which could then fund projects ranked on the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP) (see here for the California version of this). It’s not quite that simple because some regional TIPs feed into statewide TIPs, but the main point is that the project has to be on the relevant TIP(s) to get federal transportation dollars.

4. Congress can block grant funds to the states and/or large cities and counties, who can then run RFP processes to dole out the money, more or less in the way that Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds are distributed. For that matter, Congress could simple dump money into the CDBG pipeline, since every eligible jurisdiction already has a Consolidated Plan with dozens of prioritized projects they lack money to fund. I don’t think this will happen, because it is too simple, and where’s the fun in that?

Confused yet? Actually, all of this is fairly straight forward in the sense that the feds have to use one or more of these methods to get the money on the street. Your question involves the the best way to get in position for to catch the funds that are about to be pitched for infrastructure and facility projects. To do so, follow these easy steps:

1. Finalize the project design for any infrastructure-style project you have simmering and get as many of the permits and approvals as you can in the time you have. For example, having all environmental approvals and a building permit is ideal. Remember that federal funding typically triggers National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and, for those of you in California, California Environmental Policy Act (CEQA) requirements.

2. If you are a nonprofit, school district or college, see if you can entice the local city or county to be the applicant and fiscal agent for the project.

3. Develop submittal plans for all of the above options. The agencies that move fastest with the most “cooked” projects are likely to be funded.

After you’ve baked your project, lie down in a comfortable place with a good book*** while waiting for the legislation to emerge. Since we are not lobbyists, we never look at pending legislation early-bird-color-j-pegand instead wait for the sausage to be extruded. Until the stimulus bill is actually signed into law, no one can say exactly how an agency can apply. But it will be the Oklahoma Land Rush as soon as the ink is dry, so, “Start Your Engines!” As always, like Maimonides, Seliger + Associates is ready to offer a guiding hand to help you get your piece of the stimulus bill pie.

EDIT: See additional posts on this topic: Looking at the Stimulus Bill from a Grant Writer’s Perspective and Brush the Dirt Off Your Shoulders: What to Do While Waiting for the Stimulus Bill to Pass.

* My apologies to Maimonides for lifting this line.

** This is one of my favorite, if somewhat disturbing, movies from the early 1980s—another time of recession. The movie harkens back to the Depression, making it great viewing for the current economic meltdown. To paraphrase another song from the ’30s, “Brother, can you spare a trillion.”

*** I’ve been reading Love in the Time of Cholera. Nothing like Gabriel García Márquez to get me in the mood for the magical realism of the federal grant making process.

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