Taking BIL Technical Assistance to the Next Level
With more than $1 trillion in federal funding flowing to infrastructure projects as a result of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), the federal government must take steps to ensure those funds bring taxpayers the best possible value. BPC’s research has demonstrated that lack of capacity at state and local agencies can be a major barrier to delivering cost-effective projects, particularly in smaller communities and rural areas. Decisions made early in a project’s lifecycle—like scope, budget, and delivery method—have a direct influence on the ultimate success of the project, but these can be some of the most challenging issues for agency staff to resolve.
BPC recommended ramping up technical assistance to recipients of federal funding as part of BIL implementation. Fortunately, the federal agencies responsible for the BIL are heeding that call. The Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration offer interesting examples of how federal agencies are taking technical assistance to the next level to help their stakeholders make effective use of the law’s funding.
Department of Transportation
USDOT has a long history of providing technical assistance to its grantees. The Federal Highway Administration has an office in every state, staffed with experts that work closely with state and local agencies. USDOT’s website features numerous toolkits and resources to help planners, project developers, engineers, public officials, and advocates understand issues ranging from public-private partnerships to roadway safety countermeasures. USDOT is also the home of the Build America Bureau, a one-stop shop for questions related to transportation project finance, permitting, and delivery.
On top of this extensive base, USDOT has recently taken several innovative actions to improve its technical assistance offerings. In April 2022, Sec. Buttigieg announced that he was creating a first-of-its kind position within the Secretary’s office: a Strategic Advisor for Technical Assistance and Community Solutions, responsible for developing and overseeing the department’s capacity building efforts. With a high-level official elevating the profile of technical assistance within the agency, capacity building programs are being rolled out nearly as quickly as grant programs.
Soon, USDOT is expected to launch two technical assistance programs authorized by the BIL: the Asset Concession and Innovative Finance Program, which will provide grants to states, localities, and tribal governments to help them identify, analyze, and plan potential P3 projects, and the Rural and Tribal Assistance Pilot Program, which will provide support to rural communities for project planning and development. By enhancing the expertise at state and local agencies, these programs have the potential to significantly improve the ability of public sector agencies to partner more effectively with the private sector, delivering projects more quickly and cost-effectively.
In another promising step, USDOT launched two joint initiatives with other agencies to address cross-cutting issues. The Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, a partnership between USDOT and the Department of Energy, has already assisted states in meeting the deadline for submitting state EV infrastructure plans under the National Elective Vehicle Infrastructure Program (NEVI). (In a welcome act of transparency, the Joint Office has conveniently posted all the state plans in a single location.) The Joint Office also offers direct technical assistance to communities that are transitioning to zero-emission transit and school buses.
USDOT is also working with HUD to implement the Thriving Communities program, created in the FY2022 Consolidated Appropriations Act. This program envisions direct, hands-on assistance to disadvantaged communities to help them scope, fund, and develop a pipeline of infrastructure projects to revitalize distressed areas. DOT and HUD are in the process of reviewing applications both from potential technical assistance providers and from communities seeking assistance, with awards anticipated early next year.
These initiatives will add welcome new approaches to DOT’s already extensive technical assistance offerings. (For a complete list, check out this searchable table.)
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
At the other end of the spectrum is the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce. While USDOT has been a grantmaking agency for decades, NTIA has historically focused on telecommunications policy rather than infrastructure construction. The BIL transformed the agency’s mission overnight, creating six new broadband grant programs, including the $42 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program (BEAD). With so much funding to distribute and oversee, NTIA has had to build its technical assistance offerings from zero to 60 in a short period of time.
NTIA has embraced all types of technical assistance in its first year of grantmaking, from targeted one-on-one assistance to broadly applicable online resources. NTIA is deploying staff across the country to help make sure that its programs are accessible and understandable to grantees. The agency is hiring a Federal Program Officer (FPO) for each state, whose job is to help entities eligible for NTIA grants understand the requirements of those grants and develop appropriate projects. (See this interactive map for the FPO contact information for each state.) Working through the FPOs, NTIA is leading local coordination workshops to convene relevant stakeholders and facilitate development of the state plans required under the BEAD program.
At the same time, NTIA developed a wide array of on-demand resources, collected in a technical assistance clearinghouse for BEAD program grantees that features guides, toolkits, and webinars on various aspects of the program. Though still a work in progress, NTIA committed to provide technical assistance to meet the needs of every state and will continue to build on and refine these efforts in 2023.
The technical assistance work at USDOT and NTIA reflects a refreshing focus on the importance of building capacity among state and local partners. In a May 2022 fact sheet, the White House identified more than $700 million available for technical assistance through 65 programs across federal agencies. These programs should continue to be prioritized for early implementation so that states and localities can apply the lessons learned to as much of their BIL funding as possible.
The more that can be done to further highlight and simplify these programs, the better—even the list of 65 programs in the White House fact sheet can seem overwhelming. Trade associations, nonprofits, and private sector stakeholders can help by amplifying these opportunities to their members, partners, and clients. There is help available to empower state and local agencies to deliver high-quality projects with BIL funds, as long as they know where to look.
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