How Will the “Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program” Work?
In President Biden’s original American Jobs Plan, the transportation portion of that proposal called for $15 billion for a “reconnecting neighborhoods program” to “provide planning and technical assistance grants and capital grants to support the planning, removal, or retrofitting of existing transportation infrastructure that creates a barrier to community connectivity.”
The new bipartisan infrastructure law (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or Public Law 117-58) wound up cutting that back significantly, to $1.0 billion, but did create such a program.
How would it work?
- Authority. Created by section 11509 of the IIJA.
- Purpose. Purpose of the program is to “restore community connectivity” by “removing, retrofitting, or mitigating” an “eligible facility,” defined as an existing “highway or other transportation facility that creates a barrier to community connectivity, including barriers to mobility, access, or economic development, due to high speeds, grade separations, or other design factors.”
- Total funding. Funded from two places – $500 million over 5 years in contract authority from the Highway Trust Fund (Division A of the law), and $500 million over 5 years in general fund advance appropriations in Division J of the law. $1 billion over 5 years total. HTF funding gets a slight boost each year (starts at $95 million in FY 2022 and increases by $2 or $3 million per year to get to $105 million in FY 2026). GF funding is a flat $100 million per year throughout.
- Grant types and schedules. Two types of grants: planning grants and capital construction grants. In total, $250 million will go towards planning grants and $750 million towards capital construction grants.
- Grant size. Planning grants are meant to be distributed widely – a maximum of a $2 million grant per recipient, so up to 125 grants over 5 years. (However, USDOT may retain up to $15 million of the planning money to provide technical assistance to applicants from economically disadvantaged areas, which would mean fewer grants.) There will be far fewer capital construction grants – a minimum of $5 million grant size but no maximum size, so if you think of a more realistic average grant size of $15-20 million each, that would be somewhere between 38 and 50 capital grants over the 5-year life of the program.
- Federal share. The federal share of project costs is up to 80 percent for planning grants. For capital grants, the grant itself can be no more than 50 percent of a project’s cost, but section 11509(g) deems any project getting a grant under this program to be federal-aid eligible, so recipients could use other federal-aid highway funding (or other, non-highway federal grants) for such a project as well, up to a maximum of 80 percent total federal funding of project cost.
- Who is eligible to apply for grants? State governments, local governments, Tribal governments, MPOs, and nonprofit organizations.
- Planning grants – what are eligible activities? Per the law, “planning studies to evaluate the feasibility of removing, retrofitting, or mitigating an existing eligible facility to restore community connectivity,” “public engagement activities to provide opportunities for public input into a plan to remove and convert an eligible facility,” and “other transportation planning activities required in advance of a project to remove, retrofit, or mitigate an existing eligible facility to restore community connectivity, as determined by the Secretary.”
- Planning grants – how will FHWA evaluate applications? The law directs the Secretary to evaluate applications based on:
- Whether “the eligible facility is aged and is likely to need replacement or significant reconstruction within the 20-year period beginning on the date of the submission of the application;
- Whether the facility “creates barriers to mobility, access, or economic development” or “is not justified by current and forecast future travel demand;” and
- Whether “further investigation is necessary and likely to be productive.”
- Capital grants – prerequisites. Applications will only be received for a project if “all necessary feasibility studies and other planning activities have been completed.”
- Capital grants – partnering with owners. If a facility is owned by an entity that is not eligible to apply for a grant, that entity is allowed to partner with an eligible entity (state, local, or tribal governments, MPOs, and nonprofits) to apply for a grant.
- Capital grants – what are eligible activities? A project can include removal, retrofit, or mitigation of an eligible facility, or replacement of an eligible facility with a new facility that restores community connectivity and is sensitive to the context of the surrounding community and is otherwise eligible for funding under title 23.
- Capital grants – how will FHWA evaluate applications? The statute requires USDOT to judge applications for capital grants on eight criteria:
- Improvement of mobility and access through barrier removal;
- Effects on current traffic patterns and regional transportation network ability to absorb demand;
- Impact on freight movement;
- Results of cost-benefit analysis;
- Opportunities for “inclusive” economic development;
- Degree to which the facility is “out of context” with current or planned land use;
- Results of feasibility study; and
- Plan for local hiring and use of DBEs.
- GAO study. GAO is required to submit a study to Congress by November 2023 analyzing highway removals past and present.
- End-of-program report. Towards the end of the 5-year pilot program (by January 1, 2026), USDOT must report to Congress on level of applicant interest in planning grants and the outcomes and impacts of completed projects receiving capital grants.