Transit Grant Writing Part I
For the transit planner, grant writing is an essential task. Without grant writing, transit agencies would lose out on funding for extra bus services, buses, shelters, and other things. This article discusses how to get started with a proposal. To learn who to send it to, please see Part II . To learn what happens after you get an award, please see Part III .
How Grant Writing in Transit Differs from Other Grant Writing
In other fields, such as social work, it would be natural to develop a proposal before shopping it around for funding as many funding sources will support all kinds of programs that seems as though they would be effective in solving a social ill. Because transit grants are invariably government funded - and usually through very specific programs - the order of progression is reversed: to be effective, a transit planner will first identify specific sources of available funding and then develop a proposal tailored to a specific program's exact specifications.
Transit grants also usually require more comprehensive analyses of conditions and more detailed statistics than other kinds of grants. And, while historically a supportive member of Congress could help a non-competitive application receive success, the recent ban on earmarks suggests that for the foreseeable future transit grants will rise or fall on their own merits. So let us begin our examination of the steps of transit grant writing.
The First Step: Identifying the Programs
The first step for the aspiring transit grant writer is to learn all the potential sources of funding . For the federal government, transit grants administered by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) are divided into two categories: discretionary grants, which are awarded based solely on merit; and formula grants, in which a block of money is awarded to each state generally based on population.
Currently, the FTA website lists thirteen discretionary grants, of which the following are the most important to the average transit agency: Bus and Bus Facilities, which provides money for replacement vehicles and garages; TIGER, which can fund pretty much any transportation project that could improve the economy or the environment; Alternatives Analysis, which provides funding to examine different potential transit options in a corridor; and the New Starts / Small Starts program , which provides money for new rail or bus rapid transit lines.
There are eight formula grants, of which the following are the most important to the average transit agency: JARC (Job Access and Reverse Commute), which provides money to assist low-income people in reaching employment and has in the past few years been the only source of federal operating money for transit agencies in large urban areas; and Urbanized Area Formula Program, which provides money for capital and operating assistance as well as for planning needs in urban areas. Traditionally, operating assistance was reserved for smaller urban areas but due the economy this requirement has recently been relaxed.
In addition to federal grants, state and local (usually administered through the MPO (metropolitan planning organization) grants are often available. Refer to your local state or transportation authority webpage for more information about these programs. State and especially local grants usually are for much smaller sums of money than federal grants.
The Second Step: Writing the Proposal
In a normal grant proposal, a significant amount of space would be dedicated to describing the organization which will administer the grant, including their history, qualifications, capabilities, board of directors, and mission statement. Since the FTA knows all about all the possible agencies that could receive its funding, a transit grant proposal will focus almost exclusively on the program itself.
Some federal grants are so routine that they are in effect write themselves. For example, it is a simple matter to fill out a form to request funding to replace a bus that is twelve years of age or older. Other grants require such comprehensive applications that it would likely be impossible for a transit agency to fill it out without the assistance of a consulting firm. The New Starts program is an example of one of these grants.
Two federal grant programs that require some work but are within the capability of the average transit agency to submit are the TIGER program and the JARC program. For both of these programs, detailed cost/benefit analyses are essential. In fact, the FTA periodically hosts webinars on cost/benefit analyses and how to compete for TIGER grants. How many riders, minutes of travel time savings, or other metrics will be achieved for each dollar spent? The winning applications will have the most "bang for the buck".
One thing to keep in mind is that federal grants almost never cover the full cost of a proposal. The section of any grant submission that could make or break the chances of success is the section which lists what other funding sources will support the activity. For example, JARC grants only cover 50% of the operating cost of the new service - the transit agency has to come up with the other half either through reallocation of existing service or through private sponsorship (over the years, IndyGo in Indianapolis has successfully received funding from private business to operate expanded late night service).
Also, the federal government will only fund a program for a limited time. While not necessary, it is a good idea to identify how a program will continue to operate after the federal money is gone to avoid the embarrassment of ending a service that has provided value to a community. For example, Santa Clarita Transit Route 8 in California, which provided the only regularly operated transit service between the San Fernando Valley and Santa Clarita, stopped operating when the federal money ran out.
In the next installment of this series we will look at who to submit your proposal to and what you will need to do if your proposal is funded.