More than a year after the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, rural communities are struggling to access the money designed to help them rebuild roads and bridges, experts say.
With more than $110 billion in new funding on the table, government agencies and consultants are working to help rural transportation departments and local governments apply for federal dollars that should be coming to them. But rural communities face unique roadblocks to getting and using those funds.
On April 7, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) awarded more than $21 million in federal grants to 64 “under-resourced and disadvantaged communities” across the country. Part of the Thriving Communities Program, the grants help communities get other grants. A large portion of the awardees, the department said, previously submitted federal funding applications but didn’t get the funding because they lacked the resources to complete the applications.
Programs like that are designed to help rural communities that may lack personnel to complete the application process.
“I guess (the funding) comes with a mix of concern and optimism,” said Thom Kay from the BlueGreen Alliance in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “It’s hard to get these funds into rural transportation departments that may only have a handful of employees. They have less capacity to apply for the funding and less capacity to manage those projects.”
Kay said transportation officials have to find out when funding opportunities arise and research how to apply for them, including determining whether they qualify for funding. Then they have to pull together all of the necessary project paperwork such as environmental analysis and project design elements.
“Someone needs to come up with the idea, apply for the funds, manage the application process,” Kay said. “That’s a lot of time to invest away from other duties in something that may not result in anything.”
Glens Falls, New York, with a population of 14,800, was one of the cities awarded a Thriving Communities Program grant. Jeff Flagg, Glens Fall’s economic development director, said being part of the program will help them with projects ranging from a multimodal transportation hub to the electrification of its bus fleet.
“What it does is help you anticipate or create the capacity for doing those other projects,” he said in an interview with the Daily Yonder.
The grants provide communities with free technical assistance to apply for other federal project grants. Even finding the right grant to apply for is difficult, Flagg said.
“Just weeding through these myriad grants every day and trying to vet some of them for their applicability is a monumental task,” he said. “I can’t apply for 10 grants. I can apply to maybe two. We don’t have people sitting around waiting to fill out grant applications for us. Filling out the applications is one thing… God help you if you get it.”
Getting the grants means more work not only in showing how the money will be spent, but insuring the project meets state and federal guidelines, that hiring policies are followed, and that environmental concerns are met, as well as putting in place financing options to pay for the project in anticipation of grant money reimbursing the projects’ costs.
“It’s a crazy and seemingly endless list of things that you have to do,” he said.
Rural communities also lack the money needed to qualify for the grant, said Amy Kessler, North Central Pennsylvania Regional Planning and Development Commission. Most federal grant funding requires that the local community pay for a portion of the project.
“Truly rural communities that aren’t cities – these are local governments, county governments, townships, and nonprofits – they don’t have cash sitting in their books to be able to provide the local match,” she said.
Kessler said that recently through the Appalachian Regional Commission her organization did a call for projects in an effort to match communities with grants and help communities with the grant writing process. Almost 75% of the communities had no matching funds to put toward the projects, she said, which eliminated them from the grants.
Hiring consultants for rural communities is also a risk, she said. With tight budgets, spending thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, on a consultant to help with a grant a community may not get is a big gamble, she said.
Kevin Adam, with Arizona’s Rural Transportation Advocacy Council, said some states are stepping up to help their rural communities. In Arizona, the legislature passed the SMART (State Match Advantage for Rural Transportation) Fund to provide rural communities with money to hire a consultant to apply for the grant, hire a consultant to design a project for a grant, or use the money as matching funds to qualify for a grant. This year, the program was allocated $50 million to be split between larger and smaller counties, cities and the state’s Department of Transportation.
“Our state DOT just got it up and running in November,” he said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “So, we’re three or four months in and they’ve already awarded three applications, and several more have just come in… The verdict is still out as far as how successful it’s going to be… but we’re very hopeful that this will help bring some of that federal funding to these rural local jurisdictions.”