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How to prepare a DOT “Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity” (RAISE) application

NOTE: This “how to” post is a companion to “The Dept. of Transportation (DOT) issues first RFP under the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE). You should probably read that post first, which was posted yesterday.

The recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) has $1T (yes, that’s a “trillion”) for a cornucopia of funding from DOT, DOE, and other Federal agencies. BIL authorizes grants for an array of infrastructure projects, including lead water pipe replacement, high-speed internet, transportation and public transit, airports, passenger rail, electric-vehicle charging stations, electric utility infrastructure, environmental remediation, and the development of time machines (okay, I made up the last entry to see if you’re paying attention).

DOT just issued the first RFP under the new BIL (see note and link above), and a flood of other infrastructure RFPs will be published in the coming months: do as much as can be reasonably be completed in advance, even though you won’t know the specific requirements until the RFP is available. Follow these action steps and you’ll be ready to submit technically correct applications without organizational hysteria as the deadline approaches:

  • Designate a project manager or, as Apple and other tech companies refer to this person, the “Directly Responsible Individual” (DRI).
  • Most funding under the BIL will be for planning and/or development of some sort of physical improvement, structure, or facility. This kind of proposal is very different than a typical human services or R & D proposal: the narrative sections are usually relatively short and often are not composed of a single narrative, but rather are disjointed responses to highly specific questions scattered throughout the RFP; these small narratives may have to be included in different sections of the final application. Severe word or character counts restrictions will likely apply for each narrative section, making it harder to tell a coherent “narrative story” about the project and engage the imagination of the readers who will score the proposal. There should be a section for an abstract or project summary, which may be the grant writer’s only opportunity to draft a topic paragraph that answers the six essential questions that every proposal must include: Who, What Where, When, Why, and How (the 5 Ws and H). If there’s no abstract or project summary, find a place somewhere to include this topic paragraph. The final application, when printed out by the funder*, will look like a layer cake with the narratives interspersed with a myriad of forms, drawings, and exhibits that can easily run to over 200 pages. It is crucial that the RFP application instructions be closely followed, as no matter how great the project concept or the political juice behind it are, the application will not be scored and will be tossed if it’s deemed technically deficient. In most cases, you will not have an opportunity to correct deficiencies.
  • Make sure that your agency can demonstrate site control in the form of a title, right-of-way easement, lease or lease-option. If leased, the term of the lease must be longer than the useful life of the proposed capital improvement(s).
  • Hire an architectural and/or engineering firm to conduct design studies and eventually working drawings needed to obtain a building permit. Due to concerns over climate change and sustainability, select an architect/engineer who will design to meet high-level LEED “green building” standards.
  • Have the architect/engineer develop a master timeline to take the project from concept to moving dirt and establish the critical path for project completion. Once the timeline is set, the DRI should convene the first of a series of “all hands” meetings involving key internal and external stakeholders (e.g., utility company representatives, fire department, etc.). As the project moves forward, keep your eye on the critical path and adjust the timeline frequently. The DRI must keep the project moving forward.
  • Make sure that the architect/engineer interfaces with the jurisdiction’s planning department and/or building department to understand the land use and zoning constraints on the site, as well as the level of environmental review that will be needed. Determine required hearings and discretionary permits/approvals and the anticipated timing of getting the permits/approvals (add these to the project timeline). Depending on the project concept, county, state, and/or federal permits/approvals may be necessary (e.g., EPA, State Office of Historic Preservation “SHPO”, etc.)
  • Have the architect/engineer prepare a conceptual site plan for agency review and, eventually, a second trip the planning/building departments for a reality check. The DRI should schedule any necessary pre-building permit public hearings. The public hearings will need to be formally noticed and widely advertised–these hearings will be where cranky, angry local NIMBYs will show up to complain. No matter how altruistic the project seems, assume that there will be organized opposition and develop a plan to co-opt the opposition or at least address their concerns. We’ve constructed a legal world in which building anything, anywhere, is dragged down by this process, to the detriment of all of us, but Seliger + Associates doesn’t make the rules, we just write the proposals.
  • If feasible, given the project timeline and anticipated RFP release, have the architect/engineer prepare detailed working drawings, based on the conceptual plan (as revised) and apply for a building permit. While not always possible, the best way to demonstrate project feasibility to a funder is having obtained a building permit. This makes it possible to use the ever popular “but for” argument in your proposal: “but for only the grant, the project can be immediately implemented.” This argument is a variation on President Obama’s “shovel ready projects” argument when the 2009 Stimulus Bill was passed.

If all of the above steps are completed, you still won’t have a shovel-ready project; instead, you’ll have an “on the shelf” project and will vastly increase the likelihood of a positive funding decision, as funders for these kind of projects prefer applications that look like they can be quickly started. No funder wants to approve a grant for a project that can’t be built expeditiously—or built at all.

Generally, with an on-the-shelf project, the only step needed after the grant is awarded is to conduct a public-bid process to select the general contractor. A complete application without gotchas and fumbling is the way to soften the stone-like hearts of funder decision makers as they imagine attending the ground breaking ceremony with President Biden and, ideally, Kim Kardashian on hand.

 


* While Seliger + Associates and our readers live in the digital world of 2022, for many federal agencies it’s still 1997. Although most federal proposals are digital uploads, in many cases the proposals are printed out for review and scoring. Thus, all attachments should be 8 1/2″ x 11″ and reviewers will likely view the proposal in grey-scale print outs, not on the 27″ iMacs and 24″ Dell side monitors we use, so beautiful color graphics may be wasted.

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The Dept. of Transportation (DOT) issues first RFP under the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law:” “Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity” (RAISE)

The Department of Transportation (DOT) just issued an RFP for the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) Grants program; this being the federal government, the actual name of this program is the “Local and Regional Project Assistance Program in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (“Bipartisan Infrastructure Law’)”, which is even longer than the short title we shoehorned into the title of this post. Why have one program name when two will do?

Although RAISE isn’t a new program, this RFP is significant because it appears to be the first one issued under the recently passed “Infrastructure Bill.” While in FY ’20 there was a paltry $1B available for RAISE, this year there’s $1.5B (and yes, that’s “billion”). The max grants are $5M in urban areas and $1M in rural areas, so hundreds of RAISE grants will be made. The RFP says RAISE grants may be used for “surface transportation infrastructure projects that will have a significant local or regional impact.” The deadline isn’t yet published, curiously, but there’ll be an update notice published on Jan. 30 in grants.gov that should have the deadline.

Eligible applicants include states, local governments, transportation districts and agencies—including ports, and Indian Tribes. While nonprofits aren’t directly eligible, they could be part of an applicant consortium and receive sub-grants for things like environmental justice, equity, workforce development, ethnic-specific community outreach and engagement, etc.

RAISE and other transportation programs, new and old, to be funded by the Infrastructure Bill, are really aimed at what is sometimes called the Concrete Lobby. The Concrete Lobby is an unholy alliance of construction companies, developers, local elected officials and appointed bureaucrats, unions, investment banks, lobbyists, chambers of commerce, and similar self-interested parties. In many ways, the Concrete Lobby is an analog of the Military-Industrial Complex that likes politicians who like foreign wars, so the government will buy more bullets. In this case, the Concrete Lobby wants the government to “buy more concrete.”

When I was a Community Development Director for CA cities in the 1980s, we always paid close attention to local Concrete Lobby members because they could easily and often would hand-pick candidates for local office, disrupting planning and redevelopment efforts (despite their efforts, though, local municipalities still severely restrict housing construction). Environmental groups and other NIMBYs typically opposed the Concrete Lobby, using tools like the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and State Offices of Historic Preservation (SHPO) to tie up or defeat local development projects, including those aimed at transit and transportation.* We see the results today: traffic gridlock and spectacularly high housing prices that hurt the poor the most, but hurt almost everyone. Depending on how the city I was working for felt about a particular project, we’d either support or surreptitiously attempt to sabotage environmental and NIMBY opposition. If you’re an environmental activist, keep in mind that, while you’re playing a one to five year game, the Concrete Lobby and their sycophants in government are playing a 30 to 50 year game.

With so much grant money now sloshing around looking for transportation projects and the rise of “woke environmentalism,” I’m guessing that the Concrete Lobby will try to co-opt opposition by most environmental groups with visions of subcontracts, as well as the virtue signaling sacraments of environmental justice and the suddenly popular shibboleth of “equity.” If you represent an eligible applicant for RAISE grants or a nonprofit interested in subcontracts, this is the time to look for good project concepts. We’ll soon post a companion article on how to develop a competitive grant proposal for RAISE and its ilk. These kinds of proposals are very different than typical human services proposals as the narratives are short, but the attachments are huge, resulting in what we call “layer cake” applications.


* When I was Community Development Director for the City of San Ramon in the San Francisco East Bay around 1990, we worked hard to get the regional transit authority to add bus lines through San Ramon to connect to the BART heavy rail system. We imagined that our largely upper middle class and progressive residents would love the idea of reducing use of cars for commuting. They were environmentalists, right? Wrong! Within two weeks of the new buses, which were standard size or larger articulated buses, rolling though town, about 200 people in matching anti-bus t-shirts showed up at a city council meeting denouncing the intrusive buses that were keeping them awake at night and “ruining their quality of life.” I had the thankless task of facing this mob. The City Council immediately caved and directed me to renegotiate with the transit authority. The result was to remove most trunk bus lines and add a few mini-buses, which defeated the point of connecting to BART for commuting.