Federal Funding Application Process
The process of acquiring Federal funding differs by program type (e.g., grants, loans) and by agency. However, competitive funding programs (including competitive grants, loans, and loan guarantees) often follow similar processes.
Grants: Tips and Resources
The following tips and resources may provide further insight to applicants throughout the discretionary grant funding application process.
The Office of Management and Budget developed Grants.gov to provide a centralized location for grant seekers to find and apply for Federal funding opportunities. The website houses up-to-date information on over 1,000 grant programs and details on the Federal grant application process. For more information on the grants funding process and supporting resources, visit the Grants.gov Grants 101 page and review the Grant Lifecycle Timeline. For a guide to navigating the Grants.gov interface, visit their Applicant Overview. Note that before applying for Federal funding for the first time, your SAM registration must be fully processed.
For funding programs overseen by USDOT, the DOT Navigator provides assistance to find and apply for grants. On the website, developed as part of USDOT’s Thriving Communities Initiative, you will find documentation and resources about the variety of funding programs that USDOT offers with a focus on programs recently created by legislative or executive action. You can also browse pages dedicated to specific modes and transportation priorities.
Notices of Funding Opportunities (NOFOs) and Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) are formal announcements of Federal funding availability by the awarding office. Announcements provide details on eligible applicants and activities, evaluation criteria, funding priorities, and submission deadlines. Obtain and read the NOFOs or FOAs for funding programs when considering applying.
ROUTES Grant Applicant Toolkit
The USDOT Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) initiative’s Applicant Toolkit for Competitive Funding Programs illustrates key applicant activities when participating in the USDOT discretionary grants process. The Applicant Toolkit was developed to support potential applicants in identifying and navigating USDOT discretionary grant funding opportunities for rural transportation projects. The toolkit provides user-friendly information and resources to maximize the potential for award success.
While the Applicant Toolkit was designed for the USDOT discretionary grants process, the information provided is relevant for most awarding agencies.
Many Federal grant programs require the applicant to provide some of the project funding; this is referred to as either “required match” or “cost share.” Applicant match requirements vary widely by program. As an example, a funding opportunity may include the following phrase: “The Federal share of project costs under this program is limited to 80 percent.” In this case, if the total project cost is $100,000, the Federal agency will provide no more than $80,000, with at least $20,000 coming from the grant recipient. Most grants with match requirements require the recipient to prove it has the necessary funds to provide the match amount before the grant is awarded. In some cases, recipients are allowed to use other Federal funding or in-kind resources (e.g., staff time) as a project match, and they may occasionally make use of other grant funds to cover the cost share requirements (known as “braiding”).
Banks and other financial institutions (including some Federal loan financing programs) may also be able to provide loans to assist with matching requirements, but applicants should refer to the NOFO to determine if this is an option. A close relationship with local financial institutions may otherwise prove helpful as communities seek financial documentation relevant to the application process. Early contact with Federal agency staff could also be helpful to understand program requirements. Take note of the funding match requirements for programs prior to applying for grants, including programs where projects in rural areas may qualify for reduced (or be exempt from) match requirements.
Buy America Provision
The use of Federal funds may trigger domestic preference requirements to purchase certain products from American manufacturers. The specific requirements that apply (typically referred to as Buy America or Buy American) may vary depending on the source of the Federal funds. Federal funding programs will typically include direction on compliance with Buy America in the grant NOFO or in the details of a loan agreement.
In February 2023, FHWA issued a Build America, Buy America implementation plan for EV charging equipment. The plan incentivizes companies to invest in domestic production of EV charging components, while providing a transition period for companies to onshore their supply chains. The plan requires that federally funded EV chargers be assembled in the United States and must contain at least 55 percent domestic content (on a cost-basis) by July 2024.
Rural Area Definitions
Many Federal funding programs are specifically offered to rural areas or treat rural areas with funding priority. Federal agencies use many different definitions for what is considered “rural” for the purposes of policy, funding, and research. Therefore, it is important to confirm eligibility by understanding how each program defines “rural” before applying.
Some Federal agencies define rural as areas located outside of a U.S. Census-designated urbanized area with a population of 200,000 or more, or simply those outside of a U.S. Census-designated urbanized area. Other Federal agencies define rural as areas with no more than 20,000 or 50,000 residents.
It is important to understand the definition of rural used by each specific program to determine eligibility.
Where relevant, the Federal Funding Programs section notes the definition of “rural” used by particular agencies or programs. The USDOT Rural Eligibility webpage provides more information on rural definitions used by USDOT programs, as well as an interactive web map that shows rural and urban areas as defined by different funding programs.
Documentation of Project Commitment and Support
Some grant applications may benefit from including supplementary materials from partners to demonstrate support from the parties who will be involved with the project. A Letter of Commitment identifies the specific financial or in-kind project commitments by the applicant or final recipients. This may include a promise of a cost-share match, staff hours, property, or other resources, depending on the partner and project needs. These may be required by some grant applications, especially those with a match requirement. Letters of Support, on the other hand, are generally optional and reflect interest and enthusiasm from relevant parties without promising specific resources or funding. Depending on the project and partnering institutions, these letters may come from State or local governments, cultural or educational institutions, or even elected officials who wish to express their support for the project; none of the letters are legally binding.
Tribal Transportation Self-Governance
Tribes are eligible for numerous Federal funding programs. USDOT’s Tribal Transportation Self-Governance Program provides federally recognized Tribes and Tribal organizations with greater control, flexibility, and decision-making authority over Federal funds used to carry out Tribal transportation programs, functions, services, and activities in Tribal communities. Under the program, Federal funds awarded to a Tribe or Tribal organization will be transferred in advance to the Tribe or Tribal organization in accordance with the terms of a funding agreement to carry out Tribal transportation programs and activities.
Success Story: Tribal Transit Grant for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation
In 2021, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a federally recognized Tribe in Yolo County, California, received $612,000 to purchase new battery-electric vehicles as replacements for older vehicles that have exceeded their useful life and support charging infrastructure. This project will ensure continued service reliability, help in maintaining a state of good repair and, by improving air quality, advance environmental justice in the Tribal community.
In some cases, for programs that are not exclusively available to federally recognized Tribes, Tribes and Tribal entities may have decreased match requirements or increased flexibility to use otherwise disallowed sources to comprise matching funds. For example, Tribal Transportation Program funds may be used to satisfy the match requirement for transit programs (25 CFR § 170.133). Tribes have successfully applied for and received grants from a variety of Federal discretionary grant programs in the past. Potential applicants are encouraged to use the contacts listed in the NOFO to clarify funding obligations and application resources. Resources, grant assistance, and personalized guidance for USDOT programs are available for free through FHWA’s Tribal Technical Assistance Program and FTA’s National Rural Transit Assistance Program.
Financing Programs: Tips and Resources
The following tips and resources may provide further insight to applicants throughout the exploration of innovative finance techniques and the financing application process.
Local Loans: Burlington Electric and Vermont Credit Union Partnership
In addition to Federal loan programs, many utilities and credit unions provide low-interest loans for EV activities.
For example, in 2018, Burlington Electric in Vermont partnered with three local credit unions to launch a program for financing the purchase of EVs for consumers. The program provides low- or zero-interest loans for $600 to $1,800 to decrease the burden of buying an EV on consumers.
Interested buyers can research similar programs in their local area.
Applicants may be eligible to take advantage of multiple Federal or State loan programs or other innovative finance tools. Financing options may vary by location depending on State regulations. These options include the following:
- Loans: A disbursement of funds by a lender to a borrower under a contract that requires repayment of such funds with or without interest.
- Loan Guarantees: A contingent liability created when the government assures a private lender who has made a commitment to disburse funds to a borrower that the lender will be repaid to the extent of a guarantee in the event of default by the debtor.
- State Infrastructure Banks: Revolving loan funds established by States to finance transportation projects. Where established, State Infrastructure Banks may lend to public and private project sponsors.
- Bonds: A unit of corporate debt issued by companies or governments to finance projects, including a fixed or variable interest rate paid to bondholders.
- Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) and Native CDFIs: Private financial institutions dedicated to delivering responsible, affordable lending to help low-income, low-wealth, and other disadvantaged people and communities.
- Tax Credits: An amount of money that taxpayers (individuals or businesses) can subtract from taxes owed to their government.
- Public-Private Partnerships (P3s): Contractual agreements between a public agency and a private entity that allow for greater private participation in the delivery of projects. In transportation projects, this participation typically involves the private sector taking on additional project risks such as design, construction, finance, long-term operation, and traffic revenue.
- Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles (GARVEEs): Securities (debt instruments) issued when moneys are anticipated from a specific source to advance the up-front funding of a particular need. In the case of transportation finance, the GARVEE repayment source is expected Federal aid grants.
- Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program (TIFIA): The TIFIA program offers credit assistance for large-scale infrastructure projects of national significance. Credit assistance can include subordinated loans to fill the gap between existing financing through the private market and total project costs, as well as loan guarantees and lines of credit. The program is designed to leverage private investments in the national transportation system.
- Value Capture: Strategy to capture the value property owners realize through transportation and other public improvements through special assessments and taxation on those properties. Refer to the FHWA Center for Accelerating Innovation or the Center for Innovative Finance Support for more information on Value Capture.
Contacting a Federal loan or finance program office prior to applying or submitting a letter of inquiry can help applicants better determine their eligibility for the program, any pre-requisites to application, and potentially even assist in project scoping. In addition to individual program offices, the FHWA Center for Innovative Finance Support can help applicants understand a broad range of innovative financing options relevant to their project. Gathering input on financing options early in project scoping can help applicants determine how to structure their projects and any potential barriers to entry in a funding program based on project characteristics or State legislation.
Some Federal programs allow applicants to finance all or a portion of project costs using loans. The maximum amount of a loan or the proportion of project costs allowed to be financed through each program varies widely. For example, the TIFIA program can provide loans covering up to 33 percent of total anticipated costs for most projects but may provide loans of up to 49 percent of total costs for certain rural projects (see the listing for the Rural Project Initiative). Loan programs may require that the recipient prove it is creditworthy and has other financing for the project in place prior to consideration for a loan. Take note of the maximum funding available through loan programs prior to applying for financing.
Post-Award Reporting and Servicing
Consider the reporting requirements for a loan or other innovative finance tool. General information about a program’s reporting requirements can be found on the respective program website. Adhere to the schedule for debt service on loans and other financing mechanisms. Note whether the program takes an ownership interest in any capital equipment which would have to be resolved if the equipment is taken out of service before the end of its useful life. Comply with relevant local, State, and Federal regulations. Contact the administering agency’s program point of contact for additional guidance throughout the post-award phase.
The Federal agencies discussed in this toolkit have field-level staff who are available to answer questions about the funding programs they administer. After identifying programs in the Federal Funding Programs section, prospective applicants may reach out to the field staff for additional help and resources.
Below is the contact information for field staff at key agencies:
- FHWA Field Offices
- FTA Regional Offices
- USDA Rural Development State Offices
- USDA Rural Development Electric Programs
- DOE Vehicle Technologies Office/Technology Integration Regional Manager Contacts
- DOE Clean Cities Coalition Contact Directory
- EPA Regional Offices
The grant application process is generally intended to be accessible to the general public, and reviewers are often aware of the need to consider grant applications in the context of the size of the organization and request. In some cases where applicants have little or no experience with grant applications, they may choose to retain the services of private grant consultants for assistance with all or part of the application process, but this is never required.