Discretionary Grants that Win: What’s in a Name?

Discretionary Grants that Win: What’s in a Name?

Words Matter
We’ve just completed another round of federal discretionary grant applications, in this case for the Bridge Investment Program (BIP). So far this year, my colleagues and I at EBP have been working hard to support grant applicants of all types across the country.

We’ve supported Federal-State Partnership for State of Good Repair (SOGR), Commuter Authority Rail Safety (CARSI), Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE), Multimodal (INFRA and rural projects), Port Infrastructure Development (PIDP), and Bridge Improvement Program (BIP). And now the Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) is out for the 2022 Consolidated Rail Infrastructure and Safety Improvements (CRISI) grant program. (A lot of alphabet soup there!)

To date, our applicants’ 2022 projects have done well.  While only CARSI and RAISE grants have been announced as of the date of this writing, EBP has already supported $50 million in awarded grants, including $35 million in RAISE grants.  In addition, we have provided BCA and other input to applications that were not awarded grants this year.

Naturally, not all applications win. In general, the ratio of grants submitted to awarded (in dollar terms) for discretionary grant programs is anywhere from 7 to 1 this year for RAISE, to about 10 to 1 in previous years. There are a lot of very worthy projects and well-prepared grant applications that do not receive funding in a given year due to the oversubscription of these programs. (US DOT Awards Record $2.25B in New RAISE Grant Round | Engineering News-Record (enr.com)  The “elasticity of submissions” is high – although most of the discretionary programs are either new or have doubled funding available, the ratio of submissions to awarded funding did not drop by that much this year.

What the 2022 RAISE awards say about priorities and project positioning. Of course, applicants must closely adhere to the program requirements and merit criteria to succeed. Program priorities have changed drastically under the Biden Administration and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg.

Earlier grants went overwhelmingly to road projects, but that that changed in 2021. An analysis by Yonah Freemark of the Urban Institute found that as late as 2020, about 85 percent of BUILD (since renamed RAISE) grant funds went to either new roads and interchanges or to expanded road capacity projects.  In 2021, only about 15 percent of RAISE funds went to road projects.

These changes continued in the 2022 award list; the emphasis is on sustainability, active transportation, transit, complete streets, livability and walkability, technical innovations, and advancing economic opportunity, especially for areas of poverty. Among this year’s RAISE selections, 56% of the award dollars will go to projects in areas of persistent poverty, and the program is evenly split between urban and rural areas, as mandated by the program.

The DOT’s RAISE grant fact sheet is interesting from a semiotics perspective (semiotics: “the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation”).  While it might seem a secondary consideration, how a project is named in a grant application may have influence. From my experience in the last two years working with teams preparing grants (clients, other consultants), there is now more attention given to project names by applicants. Clearly from the list of winners, project titles have gotten elaborate, reflecting a desire to position projects by strategic naming.

There were 166 RAISE awards, including planning grants and capital construction grants. Here is my category breakdown of words or phrases used (or implied) in titles of 2022 RAISE applications (number of projects, percent of total):

  • Bike/Ped/Active Transportation (26, 16%)
  • Equity/Disadvantaged Groups (10, 6%)
  • Complete Streets/Wholistic Corridor Improvements (20, 12%)
  • Transit/Intermodal (30, 18%)
  • Revitalization/Redevelopment/Connecting Communities (27, 16%)
  • Resilience/Sustainability/Emissions Reductions (11, 7%)
  • Smart Transportation/Innovation (5, 3%)

Titles cannot tell a full story of a project. But it’s clear that project names track new priorities closely, while reflecting the multifaceted and multiple objective nature of successful grant applications.