Maximizing Award Success: An Introduction to Evaluation Criteria
Evaluation criteria give insight into what a program is looking for when making a decision to award funds. Clear and specific evaluation criteria 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. This section outlines common evaluation criteria used by USDOT discretionary grant programs, but 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 their application review process, refer to the program’s current Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) or visit their webpage.
Project Planning and Scope
- Project 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.
- Project Readiness and Feasibility: Some programs may use a variety of indicators to assess project readiness and 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.
- Staffing: 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.
- Past Performance: 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.
- Training: 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.
- Technical Merit: 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.
USDOT Tip: Understanding Program Evaluation Criteria. Some programs evaluate applications in part based on the demonstrated value and impact of the investment, in alignment with program or Agency priorities. To learn more about the specific evaluation criteria of a particular program, refer to the associated Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO), Application Review Information section. Contact the program POC for more details.
Project Performance and Execution
- 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 Need: 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 total project budget, cost estimates directly supporting the requested funding amount, ability to provide matching funds to meet the proposed Federal share, life-cycle costs and State of good repair, strength of the project budget, demonstration of financial investment from both non-Federal and private sources, or local financial commitment.
- Benefit-Cost Analysis (BCA): Some programs may use BCAs to assess potential investments. Factors included in a BCA can include measures of safety, the effect of system and service performance, trip time, reliability, competitiveness, infrastructure resilience, efficiencies for improved integration with other modes, or the ability to meet existing or anticipated demand. For more information on BCAs, please refer to the “USDOT Applicant Considerations” section of this toolkit.
- Alignment to National Priorities: Some programs may assess a proposed project’s alignment to national priorities and the Department’s strategic goals. This may include demonstrating how a project uses innovative approaches to improve safety, supports economic vitality, leverages Federal funding to attract non-Federal investment, plans to maintain future assets, maintains accountability for project performance and outcomes, or indicates strong project readiness.
- Safety: Safety is the top concern of the Department. Some programs may value projects that encourage safety policies and/or address safety concerns. This could include the extent to which a project’s scope identifies safety concerns that it plans to address or the community that would be impacted.
- Economic Vitality and Sustainability: Some programs may assess a proposed project’s impact on enhancing economic vitality in the designated project area. This could include a description of how the project could support economic vitality at the national and regional level or bridge gaps in service (particularly in rural areas).
- 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 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 public 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, or demonstrating cost effectiveness.
- Partnership and Coordination: Some programs may assess partnerships and coordination discussed or proposed in a project application. This could include jointly submitting an application with multiple entities, proposing multiple sources for the non-Federal cost share to demonstrate broad participation by affected stakeholders, highlighting public-private partnership, coordinating with local and regional entities, including written statements of intent from potential customers, or demonstration of 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.
USDOT Tip: Illustrating Commitment and Impact. Applicants may increase the viability of an application by demonstrating commitment and impact using a specific program’s designated evaluation criteria. When writing an application, consider the data points and metrics that could be consolidated to create a well-rounded picture of commitment to the proposed project and impact of potential awarded funds.