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How Port Authorities Can Prepare for New Federal Funding Opportunities

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Published Dec 21, 2021 4:47 PM by Sarah Bagwell Rudy

In November, President Joe Biden signed into law the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The act incorporates a wide scope of programs, including upgrading airports, building and repairing roads and bridges, and rebuilding electric grids. One of the substantial initiatives under this law focuses on upgrading and modernizing ports with approximately $17 billion in dedicated funding.

The total number is deceptive because it includes funding for land ports of entry and $9.5 billion allocated to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — much of which is for civil works projects other than navigation. However, the remaining funds, combined with more than $30 billion in new funding dedicated to programs for which ports are now eligible, provide opportunities that port authorities cannot ignore.

It is essential to understand the key priorities for a grant application. Additionally, ports should start to identify needs and develop potential projects through strategic planning efforts, including developing and updating master plans, conducting resiliency and decarbonization assessments, and producing engineering and construction feasibility studies to obtain the rough order of magnitude costs for potential projects.

Developing a Successful Grant Application

The Biden administration has prioritized global supply chain resiliency and alleviation of bottlenecks. Grant applications should identify ways projects can address the supply chain disruption. This can be an opportunity for small and midsized ports to demonstrate the ability to diversify where vessels can call, reducing bottlenecks at large ports. For the larger ports experiencing delays, upgrades and modernization can help alleviate pressure, while reducing air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Another central component of an effective grant application is support from partnering entities. Partnering with a tenant, developer, or local or state government gives federal agencies confidence in the project’s feasibility and the likelihood of securing matching funds. These partners can help demonstrate the economic value of upgrades, potential job creation and the benefits to the local communities.

In fact, some of the most pertinent factors of a successful grant application involve minimizing the impacts of port operations to the environment and local community. Grant applications should highlight how a project benefits the economy, environment and community.

While economic benefits are an essential element of an effective grant application, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and other funding agencies will look at how a port authority or maritime facility plans to prepare for the future. In addition to supply chain and economic issues, ports can take this opportunity to decarbonize goods movement and increase operational resiliency through investments in critical infrastructure.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects sea levels will continue rising and extreme weather events will become more frequent and intense. Due to these environmental changes, ports and maritime operators can take active steps now to harden their facilities. This can include constructing levees and seawalls to limit flooding or moving electric lines underground to protect them from hurricanes.

To demonstrate a commitment to sustainability, port authorities should examine ways to increase efficiencies and incorporate zero and near-zero-emissions technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Ports can address these issues by investing in rail infrastructure, enhancing the flow of truck traffic to decrease idling and transitioning from petroleum-based equipment to electric, hydrogen or other renewable-fueled equipment.

Available Funding for Ports and Maritime Facilities

Each grant program will have its own set of guidelines published when a call for projects is issued. It will take some time for agencies to establish and develop those guidelines for the newly created programs. In the meantime, ports can begin to develop eligible projects through planning efforts. Master plans, resiliency and decarbonization studies, and project engineering and construction feasibility studies are useful steps to identify and refine projects. The planning process gathers information that will be necessary for future grant applications, so once a call for projects is issued, ports can pull together a polished and robust application within the often-short time frame for submission.

One of the most immediate opportunities for ports is the Port Infrastructure Development Program, dedicated to modernizing, strengthening and improving port operations and facilities. The last funding opportunity under this program included a small port set-aside, so ports with under 8 million short tons annually should look for the next opportunity. DOT is expected to issue the first call for projects in February 2022, with $450 million available. Within the same time frame, DOT will start accepting grant applications for $25 million dedicated to marine highway projects focused on expanding the use of navigable waters in the United States.

Other new grants also will become available, including programs to reduce truck emissions, address cybersecurity, provide alternative fueling infrastructure and increase resiliency of at-risk coastal infrastructure.

Port- and maritime-related projects are now eligible for several federal programs in which funds are administered by state governments, including the Carbon Reduction Program, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding, and Surface Transportation Block Grants. In these instances, ports should consider working with (or reaching out to) their state department of transportation to understand how those funds will be allocated and verify that pertinent state agencies will review their projects. By developing plans for potential projects now, ports can be ready to take full advantage of the unprecedented funding to strengthen our nation’s vital transportation infrastructure.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act integrates decarbonization efforts into infrastructure and facilities upgrades. By including sustainable solutions in grant applications and plans, ports address the requisite environmental, societal and economics criteria to secure federal funds.

Sarah Bagwell Rudy is a government relations and public affairs consultant with Burns & McDonnell. 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.