Submitting for Competitive NOFOs: Understanding Best Practices and Pitfalls

On Wednesday, August 16, United for Infrastructure (An Accelerator for America program) and the National League of Cities (NLC) jointly hosted an hour-long workshop entitled, “Submitting for Competitive NOFOs: Understanding Best Practices and Pitfalls” packed full of advice for grant program applicants, especially those who are recently eligible under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The workshop included a panel of the following guests:

  • Mariia Zimmerman – Strategic Advisor for Technical Assistance and Communities Solutions; Co-Director, BIL Implementation (interim) – Office of the Secretary, USDOT
  • Stephanie Pollack – Coordinator for Project Delivery Support; Co-Director, BIL Implementation (interim) – Office of the Secretary, USDOT
  • Aubrei Barton – Transportation Policy Analyst – RAISE and MPDG Grants Team – USDOT
  • Kim Bathrick – Transportation Policy Analyst – RAISE Grants Team – USDOT

After opening remarks from Clarence Anthony (CEO and Executive Director of NLC) and Mary Ellen Wiederwohl (CEO and Executive Director of Accelerator for America), Pollack and Zimmerman gave a presentation outlining tools available to assist grant applicants with the federal grant evaluation process as well as strategies for making grant applications more competitive. The tools and resources are summarized below.

Tools and Resources:

How are federal grants evaluated?

A general understanding of how grants are evaluated at the federal level help to make a more competitive grant application. Here are the four hurdles that an application needs to clear to be selected as a grant award recipient:

  • Tier 0: Eligibility Requirements – Unfortunately, there are many projects that don’t make it through the first door. Their project or applicant status/affiliation might not have met the requirements for the grant program.
  • Tier 1: Merit Requirements – a couple reviewers look at the application solely based on the merit criteria. Applications are scored/rated based on each merit criteria, and then applications are advanced to the next round or cut based on those scores. The merit requirements for each grant program are detailed in each grant NOFO, and USDOT must evaluate only by the merit requirements they identified in the NOFO.
  • Tier 2: Budget Criteria – The budget information of the applications is evaluated, but only the applications that are advanced past the merit requirements evaluation.
  • Tier 3: Senior Review – Applications that have cleared the eligibility requirements, the merit requirements evaluation, and the budget criteria evaluation are reviewed by senior staff, up to and including the Secretary of Transportation. This tier is more discretionary, and letters of support are considered in this tier, but not before.

Consider the following four questions before submitting a grant application.

How will you pay for the project?

  • Most grants require a non-federal match. Where will that money come from?
  • You need to be explicit about the cost of the project so a benefit cost analysis (BCA) can be run.
  • Most USDOT grants are provided as reimbursable funds, not as lump sum or upfront payments. What will cashflow need to look like to be able to pay for the project until reimbursed?

How long will it take for your project to be ready to go?

  • Most grants are not limited to shovel-ready projects, unlike Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants.
  • Most grant programs have an obligation deadline and an expenditure
    • Obligation deadline – date by which a grant award recipient must have all necessary environmental approvals, and in many cases, a signed and executed grant agreement in place. If deadline is missed, grant award may be rescinded.
    • Expenditure deadline – date by which all grant funding must be expended. USDOT cannot legally reimburse grant award recipients for expenditures made past that deadline.
  • Grant applications should be honest with themselves and their teams about timelines and consider if it makes sense to wait for a following year grant program.

How will you permit the project?

  • National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) compliance is a requirement for most of the federal grant programs. Most will not obligate funds before NEPA is done, meaning that the cost of NEPA is on the grant applicant. You have to spend a bit of money to make money.

How will you deliver the project?

  • Refer to the Project Delivery Center for Excellence.
  • Effective project delivery happens before your construction project even begins.
  • Use the Project Delivery Center’s eight-part Project Delivery Toolbox that breaks down some of the key elements of successful project delivery. 

Tell a story. Construction grants are for things that could be built soon. They have a beginning, middle, and end that can be described. Write narrative non-fiction to tell USDOT a story about your project and the community it will impact.

Include workforce, environmental, and equity considerations. Make it clear to USDOT who you are working with in your communities, which groups you are partnering with, how labor and workforce agreements are being worked out, and other impacts (not just where the project is physically located, but also who in other neighborhoods would benefit from the project).

Focus on merit criteria. Merit criteria are the first big evaluation for a grant application. An application should address ALL merit criteria detailed in the grant NOFO. Going above and beyond the merit criteria is often wasted space. Every word is precious, so make it concise and easy to read.

Carefully calculate budgets and costs. Budgets should add up and not be overestimates. Be clear about the scope of what is to be funded and who that funding is benefiting. Make sure that cashflow is worked out and that the project will meet both the obligation and expenditure deadlines.

Make sure your grant application is self-contained. Someone with no knowledge of a project in a grant application and the community it is in should be able to fairly evaluate it without any additional research. USDOT staff is not allowed to do dig deeper and “look outside the four corners of an application” to bring clarity to a project.

Include intangibles and attempt to quantify them. With BCA, some benefits may not be easily quantifiable. Applicants should use the BCA guidelines to quantify costs and benefits in a way that is comparable between applications. Benefits that are not mentioned in the guidelines should still be included, and applicants should attempt to quantify and explain them. Applicants should also feel free to be innovative and use tools to quantify that are not included in the BCA if they feel it necessary, but the calculation should be explained and well documented.

Partner with neighbors to build a coalition. A coalition can oftentimes make an application stronger. If multiple applications are submitted by different entities for the same/similar projects, you are competing against yourself.

Solicit letters of support. While letters of support are only considered at the third tier of evaluation, support from a project jurisdiction’s U.S. Senator or Representative can hold a lot of weight during this review. Additionally, letters of support from local leaders, such as mayors and councilpersons, can help show the force behind a project in a community, especially if matching funds are being accounted for through local legislation. Letters of support from the State DOT can also help illustrate unified support for a project, which is not always guaranteed with local projects.

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