Infrastructure ‘boot camps’ help cities like Bethlehem win federal grants

The Local Infrastructure Hub has helped participating cities win millions of dollars to address pressing needs in transportation, climate, flood mitigation, rails, broadband and more

The boot camps help cities apply for grant programs under the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act

The boot camps help cities apply for grant programs under the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By Elizabeth Daigneau

Last month, Bethlehem got news that it had won $9.9 million in grants from the Department of Transportation’s Safe Streets and Roads for All program, while Dearborn, Michigan, learned that it had been awarded $24 million.

What the small Pennsylvania city and mid-sized Michigan community have in common is that both participated in the Local Infrastructure Hub. An initiative led by the National League of Cities, the hub runs a series of boot camps that seek to help traditionally underserved communities access the billions in federal funding opportunities available through the bipartisan infrastructure law and the Inflation Reduction Act.

At a news conference in December, Bethlehem Mayor J. William Reynolds called the announcement a “historic day for Bethlehem.” He continued, “This $10 million that we are receiving … is an opportunity unlike the city of Bethlehem has ever seen.” 

With a population of about 75,000, the city in eastern Pennsylvania will use the funds to revitalize one of its busiest roads and frequent parade routes by adding protected bike lanes, enhanced crosswalks and public transport infrastructure.

Similarly, Dearborn, an inner-ring suburb of Detroit with a population of about 110,000, will use the money to build new pedestrian walkways and bike paths along one of its main residential and business corridors.

Smaller-sized cities like Bethlehem and Dearborn are often at a disadvantage competing for federal grants, lacking the staff, in-house know-how and other resources that their larger peers can depend on. The hub is trying to change that dynamic and give smaller cities a better shot at winning federal dollars. 

It appears to be working. About 30 of the cities, including Bethlehem and Dearborn, that participated in the hub’s boot camp last year won grants in the most recent round of Safe Streets and Roads for All program.

“Already, small towns accessing this pro bono technical assistance are winning millions of dollars to fund safer streets and putting forward competitive applications to address pressing needs in transportation, EV charging stations, climate, flood mitigation, rails, broadband and more – positioning themselves and their residents for the jobs and opportunity of tomorrow,”  said James Anderson, who leads the Government Innovation program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, in a press release.

The average rate of success of applicants for competitive grants is 5%, according to Robert Blaine, senior executive and director for the National League of Cities’ Leadership, Education, Advancement and Development Center. The success rate for applicants who participated in a Local Infrastructure Hub boot camp is 40%.

“This is just the beginning of the data,” Blaine cautioned. “But it’s a significant return on investment. Early, but very, very promising. I’m overjoyed. I would have been happy with 10%.”

The Local Infrastructure Hub kicked off in late 2022 and, earlier this month, opened registration for its third round of boot camps. The new series of classes will focus on six grant opportunities that address transportation, roadways, electric vehicle infrastructure, climate resilience and clean water improvements.

Boot camp modules generally mirror different sections of the grant applications themselves. Participants can plan on about three to four hours of work over two weeks, including online classroom time and work required to prepare materials for applications. A final module focuses on issues around long-term sustainability and guidance on what a city should do if it wins a grant, or how to rework its application if it fails to.

A key component of the NLC program is a tool that the group has built to provide census tract-level data for cities. This delivers insights into various issues, including disparities among residents and which neighborhoods are most underserved. Cities can use this information to help design their grant applications so that they are a good fit with the goals of the federal funding programs.

To date, 700 cities have gone through the curriculum. Moving into year two, Blaine said the hub will add new courses with a focus on “targeted technical assistance” for cities that have already completed the boot camp, he said. “We’ll give them a set amount of hours to help get them over the finish line and submit for grants. We want to increase the number of cities submitting for grants, not just completing boot camps.”

The boot camps are free to cities, with Bloomberg Philanthropies and a number of other foundations and philanthropic organizations providing financial support for the initiative. Municipal officials can learn more about the offerings of each course, register and submit an interest form online from now through Feb. 2.

Elizabeth Daigneau is the executive editor at Route Fifty, where this story first appeared.

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