As the June congressional work period closed out, the Department of Transportation (DOT) issued a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) in the Federal Register for its newly launched Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grants program, renaming and reforming the existing FASTLANE program after just one year of funding. The new INFRA program is designed to increase investments by state, local, and private partners across the nation.
In a time of heightened gridlock and increasing uncertainty (for example: the Senate hasn’t passed a piece of legislation since June 15), the changes to this program provide the Trump Administration’s first opportunity to influence the allocation of federal dollars to rebuild, repair, and revitalize America’s crumbling infrastructure.
The FASTLANE program was established by the FAST Act (Pub.L. 114-94) in 2015 to address critical highway and freight infrastructure needs. As implemented by the Obama Administration, FASTLANE grants were awarded on the basis of economic and mobility outcomes, with a preference for freight projects and geographic diversity. Additionally, the FASTLANE program included a 25% set aside for rural projects.
INFRA maintains most of these merit criteria, but with important changes. Rather than explicitly prioritizing freight projects, DOT has guaranteed that these projects would be “competitive,” while shifting to prioritizing projects that utilize and increase innovative techniques in the review and permitting process, in project delivery, or in safety outcomes. While INFRA preserves the FAST Act requirement to award the 25% set aside for rural projects – a group President Trump has pledged to prioritize – the administration has expressed openness to exceed this set aside, and the department will consider these specific projects to the greatest extent.
More importantly, however, INFRA selection will now take explicitly into account how applicants are able to leverage local funding to offset the federal share (encouraging “more parties to put skin in the game”). Federal grants already take local share and private investment into account, but President Trump is leaning hard on the criteria to drive funding decisions. The messaging allows the administration to remain consistent with President Trump’s talking points regarding the need for investment in infrastructure.
What are the takeaways – not only for INFRA funding, but also federal funding programs more broadly?
- Spurring Investment: The Trump Administration has already discussed how his proposed trillion-dollar infrastructure plan would actually involve $200 billion in federal spending and $800 billion of private, state, and local investment. The new INFRA program merit criteria shows that the administration will take steps to emphasize the importance of partnerships between project sponsors and local and private entities.
- Promoting Streamlining and Innovation: DOT’s explanatory documents for INFRA make it clear that the department is looking for innovative projects, especially when it comes to cutting red tape and streamlining projects for faster delivery. President Trump has routinely called for reducing regulations and has signed multiple Executive Orders on the issue.
- Implementing the Trump Agenda: Building on the president’s Executive Orders and the actions that congressional Republicans were able to enact utilizing the Congressional Review Act, INFRA represents the first, but certainly not the last, program that President Trump seeks to modify directly through executive action.
Our recent white paper examines the various infrastructure proposals floating around Congress and the administration, including a look at the way reforms to FASTLANE may be utilized to achieve deliverable results. You can read more here.