Maximizing Award Success: USDOT Grant Application Considerations
In addition to the USDOT Grant Evaluation Criteria, there are a few other considerations that applicants should keep in mind as they develop an application for USDOT discretionary grants.
Apart from the evaluation criteria, they are also expected to abide by relevant regulations and acquire appropriate approvals for their projects, including the following:
- Applicants may need to coordinate with state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and regional metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).
- Applications may be subject to environmental reviews and approvals.
- Technical assistance from USDOT may be available to applicants.
- Applications are required to comply with civil rights and nondiscrimination requirements.
- Applications may have requirements for right-of-way and design activities.
State and Local Coordination
To access most federal transportation funds, state and regional planning authorities are required to develop transportation plans describing their upcoming transportation projects over a specific timeframe.
For example, states are required to develop State Planning and Research Programs (SP&R) and the State Transportation Improvement Program (STIP). MPOs are required to develop Unified Planning Work Programs (UPWP) each year outlining planning studies and evaluations, as well as the Transportation Improvement Program (TIP). Projects included in the TIP must also be in the STIP.
There may be other transportation-related plans that an applicant needs to align their application with the requirements of a given grant; the applicant should defer to the NOFO for specific requirements.
Applicants should coordinate with the relevant planning authority to make sure the project is included in the appropriate plan, if this is required before federal funding can be obligated. This could include coordination with the appropriate state department of transportation, metropolitan planning organization, regional transportation planning organization, public transportation authority, transit agency, or other state or local planning entity.
Relationships with state entities, in particular, can be critically important to application submission, success, and post-award project completion.
For example, some USDOT discretionary grant programs require applications to be submitted by the appropriate state department of transportation rather than local or other state agencies. Failure to coordinate with the state DOT before submitting the application may cause the program to view the applicant as higher risk.
Applicant eligibility and submission information can be found on the program website and/or NOFO.
Resources on State and Local Coordination:
- USDOT contacts for each state and territory: DOT State Contacts
- The State Department of Transportation website for each U.S. state.
- Connect with your regional metropolitan planning organization (MPO)
- Connect with your state’s Regional Transportation Planning Organization
Environmental Reviews and Approvals
As applicable to the program and project type, applicants should consider how to articulate project readiness in an application, particularly as it relates to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other environmental requirements. NEPA requires federal agencies to disclose the environmental impacts of a project and any measures that might avoid, minimize, or mitigate those impacts, and make this information available to decisionmakers and the public before final funding decisions are made.
Prior to the submission of applications, USDOT staff or state delegates will work with applicants to determine the appropriate level of NEPA review for the project and to identify any other environmental reviews, permits, or approvals that may be required for the project. The applicant should also provide any environmental studies or other documentation that describes in detail known project impacts and possible mitigation for these impacts. Applicants, USDOT, and all other potentially involved federal and state resources and/or regulatory agencies and Tribes will then collaborate to develop an environmental review and permitting schedule that identifies target dates for all required environmental actions. All required approvals and permits must be obtained prior to the initiation of project construction activities. The resources at the end of this section include additional guidance on meeting USDOT’s environmental requirements.
Applicants should demonstrate, through their project schedule, application narrative, and supporting documents, that they can reasonably expect to obtain any necessary environmental approvals and permits without delaying the anticipated start of construction of a new infrastructure project. The applicant is also responsible for creating and providing a budget for the completion of all required reviews and permits. If applicable, the budget should demonstrate how costs to complete the required environmental approvals factor into the overall cost to complete the project.
Resources on Environmental Reviews and Approvals:
- A USDOT presentation on NEPA from a National Association of Development Organizations conference
- FTA’s Environmental Programs, including Environmental Resource Information
- An Environmental Review Toolkit published by FHWA
- Additional guidance on project readiness from the recent RAISE grants
- Right-of-way acquisition should be coordinated with USDOT and may vary by mode:
The Department provides varying levels of technical assistance during the application process, by operating administration and specific program. Program-specific technical assistance resources can be found on the program websites in the USDOT Modes and Resources section of this document.
Civil Rights and Nondiscrimination
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. Similarly, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. And the Age Discrimination Act of 1975 prohibits discrimination against people on the basis of age in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 requires certain vehicles, facilities and services to be accessible to individuals with disabilities, including individuals who use wheelchairs.
After receiving a federal award, the applicant and/or recipient contractually agrees to provide equal access to the programs or activities being funded and should be ready to demonstrate compliance with civil rights obligations and nondiscrimination laws.
Resources on Civil Rights and Nondiscrimination:
- DOT’s Title VI requirements for grantees: 49 CFR Part 21
- Additional information on the Civil Rights Act of 1964
- Additional information on the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- Additional information on the Americans with Disabilities Act
Right-of-Way and Design
The obligation of DOT grant funds for construction or other activities by an operating administration may be contingent on completion of right-of-way acquisition and final design approval, and/or additional approvals contingent on completion of right-of-way acquisition and design.
All federally funded projects that involve the acquisition of real property and the relocation of persons displaced by the acquisition of such property are required to comply with the Uniform Act (40 U.S.C. 4601 et seq; 49 CFR Part 24). For Title 23 programs, a right-of-way certification is required (23 CFR Part 710).
Therefore, applicants should demonstrate, through their project schedule, that they reasonably expect to have right-of-way acquisition and design completed, as well as any other required approvals or pre-construction steps. Applicants should submit a reasonable schedule of when right-of-way (if applicable), design, and any other required approvals are expected to be obtained.
Applicants may expect that DOT may obligate funds for right-of-way acquisition and design completion only after planning and environmental approvals are obtained.