Use of DOT Funds for Public Involvement
Can I include public involvement activities in my grant application budget?
Meaningful public involvement is an essential set of activities required by DOT funding recipients to meet the requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), and Federal planning regulations.
When developing grant applications, consider the types of activities that you may undertake to ensure meaningful public involvement occurs—whether in the planning, project development, or project delivery phases—to inform and engage community stakeholders to help individuals and communities have a greater voice in the transportation decisions affecting them.
These costs should be reflected in the project budget, description, and set of proposed activities or deliverables provided in your grant application.
To support grantees undertaking meaningful public involvement activities in transportation planning, DOT published a set of promising practices to help leaders in all modes of transportation in various roles—including policy, planning, engineering, operations, civil rights, grants and program management, environmental justice, and public involvement—understand meaningful public involvement, why it's important, and how to build organizational capacity for it.
Public involvement costs should be included in project budgets or can also be supported through other Federal formula funds that State departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, or transit agencies may receive.
The following frequently asked questions are provided to help understand what types of costs may be eligible. In addition, be sure to carefully review the funding opportunity to which you are responding, as it may include additional details on public involvement requirements, specific eligible costs or activities, and information about how community engagement may be considered within the application evaluation and rating process.
Frequently Asked Questions about Public Involvement Costs
Q1. What are some ways to fund public involvement activities with Federal transportation funds?
The most frequently used source of funding for public involvement activities in planning are statewide and metropolitan planning funds provided through Federal transportation planning formula funds. These funds are authorized each year for planning and administrative activities by metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) and state departments of transportation (State DOTs). Each MPO is apportioned Federal planning funds based on a formula developed locally and agreed to by the State DOT and MPOs. Other formula and grant program funds can also be used if the costs satisfy allowable Federal cost requirements and regulations.
The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) jointly administer the federally required transportation planning processes in metropolitan areas, as set forth in 49 U.S.C. 5303 and 23 U.S.C. 134. In rural areas and on a statewide basis, the statutory provisions for transportation planning are set forth in 49 U.S.C. 5304 and 23 U.S.C. 135.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) grant funds to each governor-appointed state highway safety office (SHSO) can also be used for public involvement activities, particularly within the Section 402 State Highway Safety Program grants. Local voice and representation are critical to the effectiveness of community traffic safety programs, so community projects administered by the SHSOs should incorporate activities such as town hall meetings, data walks, observational assessments, or local workshops.
Q2. Can program funds be used to pay for public involvement activities, such as incentives and stipends, as well as translation, interpretation, Braille documents, and other reasonable accommodations that make participation accessible for often-underrepresented community members?
Generally, yes. Program funds—whether formula or discretionary grant funds—may be used for public involvement activities, so long as the costs satisfy the allowable cost requirements under 2 CFR Part 200, Subpart E. Specifically, the public involvement activities must be “necessary and reasonable” (see Q3 below) for the performance of the Federal award and allocable to that Federal award (2 CFR §§ 200.403 and 200.405). Specific programs may have additional program-specific requirements.
2 CFR Part 200, Subpart E, also applies to public involvement activities that are required as part of National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) processes that apply to most types of Federal transportation projects. The level of public involvement required by NEPA varies based on the type of NEPA review required for the specific project.
For instance, environmental impact statements (EIS) require robust opportunities for public participation, especially during the EIS scoping phase. This phase generally includes activities such as public meetings, conference calls, formal hearings, informal workshops, and/or opportunities to submit written comments. The purpose of EIS scoping is to solicit input from the public to determine the scope and significant environmental issues to be analyzed in depth in the EIS, and to eliminate from detailed study the issues that are not significant or relevant to a particular transportation project.
Q3. When are costs for public involvement activities necessary, reasonable, and allocable?
Costs for public involvement activities are necessary if, without the expense, the Federal award could not be completed. A cost is “reasonable” if, at the time the decision is made, a prudent person would spend money on the item (2 CFR§ 200.404).
A cost is allocable to a Federal award if the costs involved are chargeable or assignable to that Federal award in accordance with relative benefits received. If a cost benefits two or more Federal awards in proportions that can be determined without excessive effort or cost, the cost must be allocated to the projects based on the proportional benefit (2 CFR § 200.405).
For example, if a grantee proposed to use program funds to purchase gift cards of nominal value as an incentive for a representative range of community individuals to participate in public meetings or other official public involvement engagements, the expenditure would be necessary and reasonable only if an objective observer of the decision would determine that (1) participation would be inadequate and/or unrepresentative without the gift card incentive; and (2) the incentive would ensure adequate and/or representative public participation. Grantees should document their reasoning for concluding that gift cards are necessary for public involvement (2 CFR § 200.403[g]). The public involvement process should proactively seek full representation from the community. Furthermore, grantees must obtain written approval from the Federal entity prior to the purchase of gift cards.
Q4. Are there restrictions on the use of program funds for public involvement activities?
Although program funds may be used for public involvement activities, there are specific situations where funds cannot be used. If program funds are used for “public relation activities” (see definition below), grantees must not use program funds for costs of meetings, convocations, or other activities of the grantee, such as costs of displays, demonstrations, meeting rooms, salaries and wages of employees engaged in setting up exhibits, costs of promotional items, and costs of public relations designed solely to promote the grantee or recipient of a subaward (2 CFR § 200.421).
“Public relation activities” are activities directed at maintaining or promoting understanding and favorable relation with the community or public (2 CFR § 200.421[c]). “Public relation activities” are not the same as “public involvement activities,” which include activities that solicit and consider input or feedback from members of the community or public and/or help build durable community relationships and understanding of community wants and needs outside a specific project.
Grantees must ensure appropriate monitoring and oversight to avoid waste or abuse in handling project funds. Grantees’ internal controls and financial management systems must be adequate to ensure that award funds are used only for award purposes (2 CFR §§ 200.302–200.303). In particular, grantees considering use of cash or cash-equivalent incentive payments must adopt controls adequate to address risks of misuse.
Q5. Can Federal transportation funds be used for virtual public involvement activities?
In 2021, DOT clarified and encouraged MPOs, State DOTs, SHSOs, and providers of public transportation to increase meaningful public involvement in transportation planning by integrating virtual public involvement (VPI) tools into the overall public involvement approach while ensuring continued public participation by individuals without access to computers and mobile devices.
VPI tools are an eligible public involvement activity cost that can help to engage a diverse public and provide an effective means of communicating complex information and easing data collection.
- Promising Practices for Meaningful Public Involvement in Transportation Decision-Making
- FHWA Virtual Public Involvement Resources
- FHWA Planning Resources
- FTA Planning Resources
- Joint FHWA/FTA Transportation Planning Capacity Building
- 2 CFR 200, Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards