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Congress finally passes the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Is this 2021, or 2009, or is it deja vu all over again?

After six months of either negotiations or bizarre political theater, depending on your point of view, Congress finally passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, aka “the Infrastructure Bill;” it could have been named, “The Grant Seekers and Grant Writers Full Employment Act of 2021.” While analyses very, it seems that less than $200 million of the $1.2 trillion in the Bill will fund rail, bridges, roads, harbors, and other items that most people recognize as “infrastructure,” and the rest is a hodgepodge of other stuff too numerous to list here.

I’ve seen this movie: in 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). That opus was also a boon for grant seekers and grant writers and—as Yogi Bera is said to have said, “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Like with the ARRA, the Infrastructure Bill is a good example of the legislative log-rolling and sausage-making needed to get major legislation passed. After the dust clears, I’ll write another post about grant programs that are actually in the bill, but it obviously has huge funding authorizations for a cornucopia of project types in most federal departments.

As a former redevelopment director for CA cities and a long-time grant writing consultant, I found President Obama and Vice President Biden’s insistence in 2009 that the ARRA would fund “shovel ready projects” to be hilarious: given the labyrinth of environment reviews, local zoning issues, and ever-present NIMBYs ready to sue, “shovel ready” has little real-world meaning. Even Obama eventually admitted as much in 2012 when the feds couldn’t get the money spent quickly enough. Reforming the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to increase project velocity would be a good place to start; without regulatory reform, infrastructure construction is likely to remain overly slow, bureaucratic, and expensive—all of these are components of “the great stagnation“. Given the 2009 experience, I was equally amused to watch now President Biden in a presser this week claiming that the Infrastructure Bill would have quick, positive impacts on American’s daily lives. Maybe in a couple of years it will have positive, noticeable impacts on daily lives, but it’ll have no impact on the current twin scourges of rapid inflation and supply chain woes.

Still, the Infrastructure Bill, like the ARRA, will eventually unleash a tsunami of RFPs when the federal departments complete rule-making. There’s no ready reserve of program officers waiting to be thrown into the fray, so the process of moving from legislation to RFPs will occur at the typical federal glacial pace, no matter what Transportation Department Secretary Pete Buttigieg and other administration officials say on the Sunday morning news shows. Remember that, as Patrick Collison and others pointed out in their discussion of their Fast Grants foundation program, during the pandemic, an NIH grant “application will typically result in a decision after something between 200 and 600 days.” And that’s during the pandemic, when every day really counts. If a pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands and hospitalized millions more can’t inspire the lethargic federal bureaucracy towards greater speed, what can?

I just watched a press conference with Commerce Department Secretary Gina Raimondo, who was asked when broadband funding under the Infrastructure Bill would actually be available. After hemming and hawing for a few minutes, she finally admitted she didn’t know but that it would be “well into 2022.” She has no idea when the money will actually flow and probably feels she has limited ability to make it flow. We wrote our first of many ARRA funded proposals in 2009—and our last in in 2017! I’m guessing we’ll be writing Infrastructure Bill proposals for the rest of the decade. SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet effort began initial planning in 2014, moved towards development in 2017, and began deploying satellites in 2019—in other words, it deployed novel technologies and platforms in less time than terrestrial broadband funding is likely to reach consumers.

Still, there’ll be a frenzy of applicants waiting at the federal trough: during the ARRA era, we wrote tons of proposals for various alternative energy and EV battery projects, mostly working for start-ups that emerged like March tulips from the snow as soon as the bill passed. We’re already getting calls from similar outfits, but I have to tell them: relax, you can’t get your snout in the grant trough till the RFPs appear, which they will in the coming months and years. The ARRA included some fairly odd funding, including huge funding for Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs)—and FQHCs become our largest client category as a result. For some reason, the ARRA also had lots of funding for the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW), so, for a couple of years we wrote many proposals for domestic violence programs. I’m sure there are similar grant nuggets in the Infrastructure Bill, since lobbyists have had plenty of time to work their magic.

If you’re the CEO of a nonprofit or an energy business or a city manager/public works director, you should not stand around the grant trough with your tongue out. Instead, here’s what we’re telling our clients and callers about the Infrastructure Bill:

    • Finalize your project concept, including doing as much preliminary work as you. If it’s a capital project, get site control, finish your working drawings, and obtain a building permit. If it’s a non-capital project like environmental justice or something to do with climate change, decide on the target area, strategies, and line up partners.
    • Look for detailed analyses of the Bill to figure out which federal agencies and state agencies (for pass-through formula allocation grants) will have funding that matches your project concepts, get on email lists to make sure you don’t miss an RFP, and check grants.gov and trade association websites routinely.
    • If you don’t have a specific project in mind, dream up a couple that match available funding. Someone is going to get the grants—and it might as well be your agency.

The Infrastructure Bill is more like the ARRA than the three huge COVID relief bills that Congress passed starting in March 2020. Because the country was facing a real existential threat and there wasn’t time for lobbyists and sausage making, most of the funding in those bills was directly appropriated to specific entities and industries like cities, school districts, FQHCs, airlines, etc., or as individual income supports, like extended unemployment and SNAP (food stamps). Those bills produced relatively few RFPs for discretionary grants and many organizations only had to stand around and wait for the money to fall on their heads. The Infrastructure Bill will likely not be like that, except that much of the funding will be pass-through grants to states, which will then issue their own RFPs, complicating and lengthening the application process. This time around, your organization will have to work to get the grants.

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