The Biden administration is setting some new criteria for states, cities and other applicants for some of the $889 million the U.S. Dept. of Transportation has available in its latest round of Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grants.
The competitive program focuses on "projects of national or regional significance, "including highways, bridges and port facilities. DOT selects the winning proposals based on a variety of criteria. in 2020, DOT awarded just 20 grants from a pool of 173 proposals received.
In announcing availability of 2021 funding on Feb. 17, the agency said that for the first time, it will seek projects that deal with climate change and factor environmental justice in their planning.
[View detailed DOT notice on this INFRA round here.]
DOT said its top objective for INFRA projects is that they will support "economic vitality at the national and regional level.”
But a second objective is to address climate change effects. “Projects should include components that reduce emissions, promote energy efficiency, incorporate electrification or zero-emission vehicle infrastructure, increase resiliency and recycle or redevelop existing infrastructure,” the department said,
DOT also said the planning for INFRA projects should consider environmental justice impacts, adding that it wants the program to “encourage racial equity” and address “barriers to opportunity” such as dependence on automobiles.
“We are committed to not just rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, but building back in a way that positions American communities for success in the future—creating good paying jobs, boosting the economy, ensuring equity, and tackling our climate crisis,” said DOT Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a statement,
Susan Howard, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials' program director for transportation finance, said via email that discretionary grant programs allow each administration to develop selection criteria that reflect its priorities.
She said that under the Trump administration, INFRA "had a rural focus." In DOT's last INFRA round in 2020, 53% of funding went to projects in rural areas—more than double the minimum percentage set by statute.
"The new areas of interest for INFRA are consistent with the values and priorities of the Biden administration and I am certain there will be no lack of worthy projects that can meet its new criteria," Howard noted.
In another new wrinkle, the department has established an “INFRA Extra” program, for applicants who don’t win an INFRA grant.
DOT will authorize those entities to seek a loan under its Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or TIFIA, program. TIFIA loans can cover up to 49% of a project’s total cost.
Applicants will have to move swiftly: DOT has set a deadline of March 19 to submit proposals.
Many key features of the INFRA program are mandated by federal law and won’t change. At least 25% of the new INFRA round’s total dollars still must be awarded to projects in rural areas.
The program also will continue to fund large and small projects. In most states, large projects must be at least $100 million, and the minimum INFRA grant for such projects is $25 million.
At least 10% of the total INFRA funding is set aside for small projects. They each can be no larger than $25 million and will receive grants of at least $5 million.
An INFRA grant can be used to cover as much as 60% of a project’s costs. Applicants can supplement INFRA grant money with other federal funding, but total federal funding can be no more than 80% of total costs.
The. program was established in the 2005 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. The Obama administration named the program FASTLANE, for Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies.
The Trump administration renamed the program INFRA, which the Biden administration has apparently decided to keep in place.
Story corrected on 2/20/2021 to add "Infrastrucuture" to full name of TIFIA program.