Maximizing Award Success: USDOT Grant Evaluation Criteria
Evaluation criteria give insight into what a grant program is looking for when making a decision to award funds. Clear and specific evaluation criteria are provided to help applicants understand if their project would be a good fit for a particular grant program and assist program managers in making informed decisions about high-value projects based on that funding cycle’s criteria.
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This section outlines common evaluation criteria used by USDOT discretionary grant programs, including the following:
- Project Planning and Scope
- Past Performance
- Project Performance and Execution
- Funding Indicators
- Project Impact
However, each program is unique, and program-specific evaluation criteria should be reviewed prior to application. For the exact evaluation criteria used by a particular program in its application review process, refer to the program’s current Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) or visit the program’s webpage.
Project planning and scope criteria evaluate whether the applicant has the ability to complete the project they have proposed. The program evaluates whether there is a need for a project; whether the project can be implemented; whether the organization submitting the application has the financial, legal, and technical capacity and expertise to implement the project; and whether the proposed plan can effectively address this need.
Some programs assess the gaps that can be addressed through federal funding of a project by reviewing applicants’ detailed needs assessments, including quantitative figures and qualitative narrative.
Before an applicant can explain how their proposed project will make a positive impact, they must first demonstrate that there is some need for improvement that must be addressed. This project need should directly align with the goals of the grant program, as described in its NOFO. This project need should also tie into the other grant evaluation criteria and USDOT goals.
For example, a project need could be a demonstrated safety risk, an inequity in transportation access, or a poor state of repair for important transportation infrastructure.
Applicants should also take care that the rest of their application ties back to the need indicated, describing how the proposed project is able to effectively address this need and how the project impact will close the identified gap(s).
Project Readiness and Feasibility
Indicators of Project Readiness and Feasibility
Some programs may use a variety of indicators to assess project readiness and the ability to begin and complete construction, if applicable.
Applicants can demonstrate project readiness and feasibility through:
- Readiness to proceed into construction (if applicable),
- Capacity to carry out the proposed project (e.g., legal, financial, and technical capacity),
- Consistency with USDOT planning guidance and regulations,
- Project activity work plan, schedule, and process,
- Project implementation strategy, and
- Signed and submitted certifications and permits (including environmental approvals).
Other indicators may include the clear articulation of a project’s goals and objectives for the funding, or the extent to which the applicant’s project plan clearly establishes resources, milestones, and estimated project costs that align with the project goals and objectives.
As applicants develop their applications, there are some guidelines on project readiness and obligation timing they should consider.
Obligation occurs when a selected applicant enters a written, project-specific agreement with the Department and is generally after the applicant has satisfied applicable administrative requirements, including transportation planning and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements. Applicants should be aware that they must complete NEPA review first before they can proceed to final design and acquire real property.
It is important that the application package include sufficient evidence of project milestones (including planning, NEPA, and permitting milestones) achieved and those still remaining, as well as financial capacity and commitment in order to support project readiness.
Furthermore, applicants may be required to sign a grant agreement before incurring costs intended to count as federal participation or match on a project.
Timeline for Obligating Funds
Applicants should be aware that each operating administration with the responsibility for obligating the USDOT grant funds has its own regulations, policies, and procedures that may apply to projects selected. In some cases, an operating administration may obligate a portion of the overall award amount for the purpose of completing eligible pre-construction activities, delaying the balance of the obligation of funds until all pre-construction requirements have been completed. Generally, USDOT may not obligate for construction until all planning and environmental approvals are obtained and right-of-way acquisitions and final design are complete.
If a project is selected for a USDOT grant and the grant funding will be used to complete these activities, USDOT may obligate the funding in phases, in accordance with the laws, regulations, and policies of the operating administration that is administering the grant.
Applicants should demonstrate that they can reasonably expect to complete certain activities and pre-construction so that all grant funds are obligated in advance of any statutory deadline. The applicant should be able to demonstrate that any unexpected delays will not put USDOT grant funds at risk of expiring before they can be fully obligated.
With regard to the permitting approach, the applicant should provide adequate information for USDOT to assess whether the remaining environmental review and permitting milestones can be achieved through this approach in order for obligation within the statutory timeframe.
Applicants that are unfamiliar with, or have questions about, the requirements that a proposed project or projects may need to complete in order for the operating administration to obligate grant funds should reach out to the point of contact provided in the grant’s NOFO with questions.
Some programs may assess the degree to which an application includes a project management structure that would successfully oversee the execution of the proposed project. This could include organizational capacity as well as the expertise or qualifications of key personnel.
Some programs take into consideration an applicant’s experience and previous record of project delivery and/or grant management. Applicants who can demonstrate experience and past performance in project and/or grant management may have a higher likelihood of demonstrating that they can be effective stewards of federal funds.
Depending on the program and project type, the inclusion and components of training plans may be considered in the application evaluation process. This could include demonstration of existing capacity to train state and local personnel, train personnel in rural areas, establish curricula to support safety standards, provide comprehensive needs assessments, or articulate prior training experience.
Depending on the program and project type, an applicant’s technical merit may be assessed. Factors could include alignment with program requirements and objectives, likelihood of project implementation success, scalability, or commitment to evaluate the effectiveness of proposed activities.
Project performance and execution criteria evaluate whether the applicant has an effective plan for tracking the progress of their project as they implement it and for reporting back progress to the granting agency as required.
Performance Goals and Measures
Some programs evaluate the comprehensiveness and completeness of the information provided in the application—for example, the listing of clear project goals, objectives, and outputs. Other indicators may include measurable project outcomes, time horizons for calculating measures, bases for comparison, or before and after customer satisfaction determinations, as applicable.
Monitoring and Oversight
Some programs may require general oversight or participation in regular project tracking and monitoring activities. Application evaluators may look for an application to include a detailed project evaluation and monitoring plan and/or strategy to determine if the applicant is able to follow through with the planned activities.
Project Risks and Mitigation Strategies
Some programs may evaluate the identification of anticipated risks and potential mitigation strategies. Applicants may choose to include a risk assessment in their application and highlight mitigation planning in their proposed project activities.
Funding indicator criteria evaluate whether the proposed project is financially necessary and viable.
Some programs may consider a project’s funding need in the evaluation process, weighing the availability of funding with an applicant’s ability to fund the project in a timely manner using other funding sources.
Cost and Funding Availability
Some programs may consider the following:
- Total project budget
- Cost estimates directly supporting the requested funding amount
- Ability to provide matching local funds to meet the proposed federal share requirement
- Life-cycle costs and state of good repair
- Strength of the project budget
- Demonstration of financial investment from both non-federal and private sources
- Local financial commitment
Note that most USDOT grants funds are done through reimbursable payments—not as an up-front lump payment.
Applicants are advised to refer to the program NOFO to make sure their planned expenditures count as “eligible costs.” The NOFO may state what specific activities are eligible or not eligible for reimbursement as part of the grant award.
Applicants may be required to sign a grant agreement before incurring eligible costs intended to count as federal participation or match on a project.
Some programs may use benefit-cost analysis (BCA) to assess potential investments. BCA is a systematic process for identifying, quantifying, and comparing expected benefits and costs of a potential project. A BCA provides estimates of the anticipated benefits that are expected to accrue from a project over a specified period and compares them to the anticipated costs of the project.
Benefits quantify the economic value of outcomes that are reasonably expected to result from the implementation of a project on both users of the facility and non-users, valued in monetary terms.
Costs would include both the resources required to develop the project and the costs of maintaining the new or improved asset over time. These costs are usually measured by their market values, as they are directly incurred by developers and owners of transportation assets.
Benefits may include:
- Safety benefits
- Travel time savings
- Operational cost savings
- Emissions reduction benefits
- Facility and vehicle amenity benefits
- Health benefits
Costs may include:
- Capital expenditures
- Operating and maintenance expenditures
- Residual value and remaining service life
- Innovative technologies and techniques
USDOT expects applicants to provide analyses that are consistent with the methodology outlined in the Benefit-Cost Analysis Guidance for Discretionary Grant Programs as part of their application seeking discretionary federal support, where required. Additionally, USDOT encourages applicants to incorporate this methodology into any relevant planning activities, regardless of whether the project sponsor seeks federal funding.
- USDOT’s Benefit-Cost Analysis Guidance for Discretionary Grant Programs
- DOT Navigator Benefit-Cost Analysis overview
The final set of criteria evaluate how and to what extent the project will benefit the public. There are a wide variety of ways in which a project can make a positive impact, and many of these cannot be captured effectively by the financial benefits covered in the benefit-cost analysis.
Alignment to USDOT Strategic Goals
Many USDOT funding opportunities will review applications using criteria that reflect the current USDOT Strategic Goals. Applicants should strive to align their applications with these goals and describe how their projects would advance them.
These goals include:
- Economic Strength and Global Competitiveness
- Climate and Sustainability
- Organizational Excellence
Rural Community and/or Tribal Government Focus
Some programs clearly specify evaluation criteria related to rural communities and/or Tribal nations. This could include highlighting a project’s impact on these communities—for example, enhancing the state of good repair, driving economic competitiveness, improving quality of life, supporting broadband deployment or other innovations, expanding E-911 access, or training and engaging with emergency responders in rural areas.
Project Benefits and Impact
Some programs may assess an application based on the benefits associated with or attributed to the proposed project, which could include serving a variety of communities (e.g., urban, suburban, and rural environments) or transportation markets (e.g., freight, personal mobility, and public transportation).
This could also include factors such as enhancing safety, encouraging investments in other near-term transportation projects, enhancing service coverage, fostering economic development (particularly in rural communities and for disadvantaged populations), showing consideration for the environment, demonstrating cost effectiveness, or reducing inequality.
Partnership and Coordination
Some programs may assess partnerships and coordination discussed or proposed in a project application. This could include the following:
- Jointly submitting an application with multiple entities
- Proposing multiple funding sources for the non-federal cost share to demonstrate broad participation by affected stakeholders
- Highlighting public-private partnerships
- Coordinating with local and regional entities, including written statements of intent from potential customers
- Demonstrating outreach and inputs captured from communities and industry groups
Innovation and Technology
Some programs may evaluate an application on its ability to promote technology and innovation. This could include demonstrating technology readiness, illustrating project pilots, accelerating the implementation and delivery of new technologies, or using innovative approaches to improve safety and expedite project delivery.
Some programs may also assess how a project includes or enables innovation through the accelerated deployment of innovative technology or expanded access to broadband.