Get Up And Go

Utilizing transportation enhancement (TE) money is one of the most effective ways to fund surface transportation projects.

In the past, these monies have financed pedestrian and bicycle trails, landscaping treatments and scenic beautification projects; mitigated environmental pollution; and maintained habitat connectivity.

So how can your community secure these versatile funds for your own projects?

First, you need to understand the ins and outs of transportation enhancement funds.

Where does transportation enhancement money come from?

TE is part of the Surface Transportation Program administered by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Under the program, funds are passed to state departments of transportation and/or regional/metropolitan planning organizations for infrastructure projects that have regional or statewide significance.

The current reauthorization of the federal transportation budget, coined the Safe, Accountable, Flexible & Efficient Transportation Equity Act (SAFETEA), continues the current apportionment formula, capping TE reserves at 10 percent. This figure is significant when you consider that the reauthorization bill for surface transportation projects totaled more than $5 billion in 2004 and will reach $5.8 billion in 2009.

How can funds be used?

The FHWA's definition of surface transportation includes all elements of the transportation system except aviation.

Part of the appeal of TE funding is that it can be used to fund a wide array of improvements relating to surface transportation. In fact, there are 12 different types of activities eligible for TE funding.

Trails are among the most common projects, but communities have also used the money to restore buildings, fund landscape, public art, street furniture and lighting associated with a streetscape project, and acquire scenic land easements and buildings.

What barriers are there to obtaining these funds?

TE funds are subject to several federal procurement policies, environmental statutes and potential prevailing wage standards.

It's recommended that you consult with a state department of transportation official or metropolitan planning organization representative to confirm all rules and policies that would apply to your project. The following is an overview of some of the more significant requirements you'll need to adhere to:

• The project must comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to the extent that the state historic preservation office is consulted to assess architectural and archeological impacts of the project.

• Design and construction projects must be coordinated with the state department of transportation.

• Plans and specifications must be completed by a licensed professional engineer, architect or landscape architect.

• Federal aid funding requires that the Federal-Aid Consultant Selection Process must be used.

• An FHWA Memorandum dated July 28, 1994 provides some guidance on the applicability of the Davis-Bacon Act concerning prevailing wages on the use of TE funded projects. This memo indicates that if the project is linked to a federal-aid highway based on proximity or impact (i.e., without the federal-aid highway the project would not exist), then the Davis-Bacon requirements apply. This would include removal of outdoor advertising, a wetland to filter highway drainage, etc.

If the project is not linked and is eligible solely on function (i.e., a transportation facility like a bike path, the restoration of a train station, etc.) then the Davis-Bacon requirements do not apply. The Davis-Bacon requirements are applicable to projects that are greater than $2,000 or are physically located within the existing right-of-way of a federal-aid highway, regardless of the transportation enhancement characteristics.

How can communities tap into these funds?

TE funding is available to public agencies and non-profit organizations and is highly competitive. Private applications are allowed but must be accompanied by a public agency co-sponsor.

Solicitations for proposals generally occur once a year in late fall or early winter and require a funding match that may range from 20 percent to 30 percent from a local sponsor. The percentage of the minimum local match may vary based on whether the state or metropolitan planning organization administers the program.

How do you prepare a successful application?

Although there are no guarantees that grants will be funded, there are some practices that can improve the likelihood that your proposal will receive financial support.

Before you begin, it is important to know what the grant makers expect, what they have funded in the past and how they like the information to be presented. Here are some helpful suggestions to get your enhancement project off the ground:

• Know your project and have a clear idea of how the project fits the requirements of the program. One of the most common reasons grants are denied is because the applicant does not have a clear and concise summary of what they want to fund or how enhancement funds will move the project forward. Too often applications appear to chase funds instead of embrace the "fit" between the need and the source. I frequently prepare a project summary that defines the project, how it will be funded, how the grant will satisfy the need to move it forward and identify those resources that have been assembled to implement the project. Using this approach will help you clarify your message and understand the fit between the enhancement program funds and your project.

• Learn as much as you can about how the program is reviewed and administered. Program administrators can provide great insight into how proposals are scored, evaluated and ultimately decided upon. In addition, program management staff can clarify ongoing reporting requirements and related responsibilities the grant recipient must assume if the project is funded.

• Research how funds have been awarded in the past. Remember, transportation enhancement funding can be applied to 12 different funding categories. The question is, how have these funds been used historically? I am reminded of a situation I experienced while listening to a regional planning commission discuss committing enhancement funds to a streetscape project.

The commission saw the project as a local concern with limited to no regional transportation benefit and the regional enhancement program had never been used to fund this type of project. The applicant stressed the project's eligibility but the commission didn't fund it, in part because they had no history of supporting this type of project.

This is not to say that you should avoid pursuing funding for projects where the use of funds are eligible but the agency has no history of using funds for that purpose. Instead, you must compensate for the novelty of the concept by working with the grant maker. In addition, look for data on common uses and ways funds have been used as well as how applicants have exceeded the local match requirements to make applications more competitive.

• Review past grants that have been funded. Don't plagiarize past applications. Do examine them to see how questions have been answered, the type of supporting data that has been provided, applicant's approach to justifying their need for financial support and how the project would be implemented.

• If possible, meet with staff responsible for managing the program. While virtually every agency that administers enhancement program funds can provide technical assistance to applicants, some agencies may have policies that prohibit staff from discussing specific proposals. For those that do not have this limitation, meeting with staff to summarize your proposal and confirm observations garnered from prior research of the program can be very helpful in validating your reasons for pursuing an enhancement grant. In addition, staff can provide helpful insights into how similar applications have been considered and make suggestions to bolster your application.

• Determine if the program is a good fit for the funding needs of your project. Make a decision on whether or not the fund is a good fit for your project. If it is, then use this insight to prepare a draft proposal.

• If possible, meet with staff to review a draft proposal. Following the preparation of a draft document, try to schedule time with program staff to review it and determine if information is complete.

• Share your appreciation. Assuming the proposal is funded, share your appreciation with staff that provided assistance. After all, they like to see projects funded and successfully implemented.

Data sources used to prepare this article include: Iowa Department of Transportation Funding Guide and Federal Highway Administration Web sites.

Jim Halverson is a senior project manager and grant writer for Howard R. Green Company (HRG). One of HRG's most successful grant writers, Halverson has won funding on every grant he has authored for HRG clients. He recently presented a workshop on how to compete for EPA Brownfields grants at the EPA Brownfields 2004 Conference in St. Louis.