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When Congress returns from recess next week, members face a daunting inventory of program expiration deadlines. The debt limit will have to be raised. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) will need to be renewed by the end of September. The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) could expire on September 30.  Legislative action will be needed to extend the life of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). And the new Federal Fiscal Year will begin on October 1. On top of all that, Congressional action will be needed to address the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey.

Facing this long line of hurdles, and according to Press reports, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan believes that a Continuing Resolution (CR) will likely be needed to extend federal spending authority in the coming fiscal year. As you recall, after a series of Continuing Resolutions, the final appropriations bill for the current fiscal year was signed into law this past May 5.

Reliance on a Continuing Resolution would likely freeze current year spending levels for federal programs and agencies, pending final action on FY 2017-2018 appropriations. In 2015, Congress passed and the President signed the five-year Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. That act authorized annual increases in federal aid to State departments of transportation, subject to annual Congressional appropriations. This year, absent separate treatment of US Department of Transportation appropriations, a CR would likely freeze transportation infrastructure funding at current year levels, at least until completion of the FY ‘18 appropriations process.

Word out of Washington also portends a further delay in the introduction of the Administration’s long-promised $1 trillion infrastructure program. With tax reform now gaining prominence, infrastructure will likely remain on the back burner until 2018.

Meanwhile, the US DOT has reconfigured some existing grant programs and launched the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) discretionary grant program through a Notice of Funding Opportunity (NOFO) in the Federal Register. (Applications must be received by November 2, 2017.)

According to US DOT, “the INFRA program will make approximately $1.5 billion available to projects that are in line with the Administration’s principles to help rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure  In addition to providing direct federal funding, the INFRA program aims to increase the total investment by state, local, and private partners.” As the Department’s Press Release states:

INFRA advances a pre-existing grant program established in the FAST Act of 2015 and utilizes updated criteria to evaluate projects to align them with national and regional economic vitality goals and to leverage additional non-federal funding. The new program will increase the impact of projects by leveraging capital and allowing innovation in the project delivery and permitting processes, including public-private partnerships.

Additionally, the new program promotes innovative safety solutions that will improve our transportation system. INFRA will also target performance and accountability in project delivery and operations.

The Department will make awards under the INFRA program to both large and small projects.  For a large project, the INFRA grant must be at least $25 million.  For a small project, the grant must be at least $5 million. For each fiscal year of INFRA funds, 10% of available funds are reserved for small projects.

The INFRA grant program preserves the statutory requirement in the FAST Act to award at least 25% of funding for rural projects. The Administration understands that rural needs may well exceed this limit, and the Department will consider rural projects to the greatest extent possible.  For rural communities in need of funding for highway and multimodal freight projects with national or regional economic significance, INFRA is an opportunity to apply directly for financial assistance from the federal government. For these communities, DOT will consider an applicant’s resource constraints when assessing the leverage criterion.

INFRA grants may be used to fund a variety of components of an infrastructure project, however, the Department is specifically focused on projects in which the local sponsor is significantly invested and is positioned to proceed rapidly to construction. Eligible INFRA project costs may include: reconstruction, rehabilitation, acquisition of property (including land related to the project and improvements to the land), environmental mitigation, construction contingencies, equipment acquisition, and operational improvements directly related to system performance.

Applicants may resubmit their previous FASTLANE application, but must explain how the project competitively addresses the improved INFRA Grant criteria.  This NOFO will remain open until 8:00 PM EST, November 2, 2017.

We will do our best to keep you posted on further developments or lack thereof.

Contact:  Jon Moran, Sr. Legislative Analyst, jmoran@njslom.org or 609-695-3481 x121.