The US Department of Transportation issued a Request for Information to inform their Thriving Communities Initiative. The Thriving Communities Initiative will provide technical assistance and capacity building resources to improve and foster thriving communities through transportation improvements.

Below are US Ignite’s responses to questions 1,2,4, and 7 on the RFI (Docket Number DOT-OST-2022-0082).

1). What are the greatest barriers to disadvantaged communities in pursuing Federal transportation funds and delivering transportation projects, particularly for rural, tribal, and smaller jurisdictions that technical assistance could help address? What information and resources would help disadvantaged communities and local organizations pursue Federal transportation funds?

Disadvantaged communities are under-represented in transportation planning and as a result the needs of those communities are not well understood. In addition to ensuring increased representation of disadvantaged communities in transportation planning discussions, a way to mitigate this issue is through use of smart and connected technologies. In US Ignite’s smart base programs, we are exploring a number of approaches to better understand infrastructure utilization and traffic patterns through tools that track movement of vehicles and people. US Ignite could extrapolate what we have learned from the smart base program to help municipal leaders in obtaining data to inform the transportation planning process to meet the unique needs of their disadvantaged communities. The data collection and analytics support can help explain the specific challenges of a disadvantaged city or community. US Ignite’s data dashboards are a great example of application of utilizing large amounts of data to bring situational awareness to the decision makers to help inform operations. For example, Miami, FL, is utilizing a data dashboard to better understand the state of the economy in real time in order to help local policymakers understand how the city is recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the data curation, storage, modeling, and visualization tools utilized to make operate the Miami FL economic dashboard could be applied to helping the DOT, state transportation agencies, and disadvantaged communities better understand their transportation needs. Once there is an understanding of where a community’s needs are, DOT can provide tailored technical assistance related to the programs that are a best fit to meet the community’s needs.

Another issue faced by disadvantaged communities in pursuing federal transportation funds is the lack of capacity from municipal, academic and private sector leadership (and staff) within underserved communities.  Many of these communities have a low tax base, which puts downward pressure on salaries and recruiting efforts for top tier planning and policy positions.  Many of these locations struggle to recruit outside talent in and to retain talent.  This lack of capacity is often compounded by disadvantaged communities receiving little private sector investment and often not having access to tier 1 researchers.  These factors create a snowball effect that can decrease quality of applications generated by these communities and also harm the ability for these communities to deliver on the hard programs needed to reverse the impact of this historical underinvestment. Technical assistance that could help support capacity building within these communities and mitigate impacts of lack of capacity while pursuing funds through the Thriving Communities Initiative would be especially impactful.

2). What types of technical assistance would be most useful or not useful to organizations serving or located in disadvantaged communities to work with local and state transportation agencies advance transportation projects that improve mobility, safety, economic development, equity outcomes and environmental issues?

women_reading_on_BusThere are multiple types of technical assistance that could be used to serve disadvantaged communities, including the development of a funding tool to easily sort open federal and state funding opportunities by type of funding, eligibility to apply for funds, and allowed use of funds. Providing organized and easily accessible access to funding opportunities is the first step to helping communities receive funding. Furthermore, provision of transportation planning services would be beneficial to underserved communities. Transportation planning services could be provided through partnership with non-profits, national and local transportation organizations, and the state transportation offices for the underserved communities. Planning services would include the development of a single vision for transportation infrastructure investment for the community, assessment of the community’s current transportation investment and infrastructure, and capacity building for local transportation leaders to continue to pursue their vision for investment in transportation projects to improve mobility, safety, economic equity, and address environmental issues. These services would not only be beneficial in determining what funding to pursue from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act but would also positively impact long term transportation planning for the underserved communities participating.

DOT should also consider developing state and local playbooks and communities of practice for underserved areas looking to pursue transportation funding. Playbooks would be a compilation of best practices seen from other communities who have successfully overcome barriers to receive transportation funding. In addition to playbooks of best practices, DOT could create monthly webinars on issues related to the Thriving Communities Initiative and guides on how to pursue funding opportunities. All of these resources could be accessible to communities via an online portal. Pursuit of the creation of these materials could be a good opportunity for DOT to partner with organizations, like US Ignite, that have experience providing these types of services to underserved communities.

Furthermore, it would be beneficial to convene interested disadvantaged communities together to provide technical assistance in a group setting. This would allow DOT to provide technical assistance to multiple communities at once while also supporting application creation, development of community partnerships, technology matching to use-identified needs, and provide a forum for communities to help each other problem solve through a high functioning collaboration model. US Ignite recommends grouping communities based on having a similar size, region, or underserved populations or grouping them based on those with similar motivations for applying for transportation funding or desired outcomes. Partner organizations, like US Ignite, could augment DOT’s convening efforts by providing support for community evaluation modeling or data dashboards to communicate both within the disadvantaged community about the transportation need and to the external policy and public communities as well.

DOT should consider convening interested disadvantaged communities together to provide technical assistance in a group setting.

4). What other information should DOT consider as it creates new technical assistance and capacity building programs through the Bureau, particularly to support disadvantaged communities in identifying, designing, developing, financing, and implementing projects that can be supported through IIJA funding opportunities and ?

DOT should consider the impact of providing funding for outside expert stakeholder groups and non-profits to provide supplemental technical assistance to disadvantaged communities. This would be beneficial because the outside groups could complement the efforts of DOT and the Thriving Communities Initiative and would have the ability to multiply the impact of the initiative. For example, US Ignite is already providing technical assistance to its communities that are interested in applying to federal funding, including the funds made available through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

As mentioned in the response to question 2, DOT should consider convening interested disadvantaged communities together to provide technical assistance in a group setting. It would also be beneficial to bring together cohorts of nonprofit, private, academic, municipal, and federal funders of transportation programs for disadvantaged communities to help ensure challenge areas faced by the disadvantaged communities are addressed through the provision of technical assistance from DOT. Additionally, if funds are available, DOT should consider creating a team of fellows at the state and regional level to facilitate local onsite collaborations for disadvantaged communities. Students selected as fellows would be from top planning, policy, economic, business, or science programs and would be given a stipend to explore a career in public service in a disadvantaged community.

In addition to a tool to allow communities to navigate federal funding opportunities, US Ignite provides its communities with technical and community-building assistance, as well as expert feedback on applications for funding. US Ignite, and organizations providing similar services, would be able to easily leverage their expertise providing technical assistance to benefit the disadvantaged communities participating in the Thriving Communities Initiative. This would allow the Thriving Communities Initiative to be amplified past the impact that DOT would have otherwise.

7). How can interagency coordination between Federal, state, and regional offices enhance the delivery and impact of technical assistance efforts?

Interagency coordination between federal, state, and regional offices is essential to the successful delivery and impact of technical assistance efforts because each level of government has different capabilities and relationships with the disadvantaged communities. By promotion interagency coordination, DOT can ensure that disadvantaged communities are receiving the most effective technical assistance possible to meet their needs without the duplication of . Interagency coordination could also help bridge funds provided by federal, state, and regional offices and support deployment of funds in communities.

In addition to promoting interagency coordination, US Ignite recommends that DOT consider using the levers available to federal, state, and regional offices to promote inter-community collaboration. US Ignite has experience doing this through its US Ignite Communities program and has found it to be quite helpful in the adoption of smart city technologies in communities of all sizes. Through sharing best practices and lessons learned, US Ignite has seen community leaders better leverage resource to execute the successful adoption of smart technologies for their community. We believe similar inter-community collaboration could help disadvantaged communities access and utilize the infrastructure investment funds through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and get the most out of the Thriving Communities Initiative.

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