Return of Congressional Earmarks Marks New Funding Opportunity For Planners

Earmarks are back on Capitol Hill. The House of Representatives has outlined procedures for congressionally directed project spending and formally removed the decade-long ban on the practice. Members of Congress can now make direct requests for projects through either the Appropriations Committee's Community Project Funding process or the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Congress Revives Earmarks for Projects

Here's an overview of what you need to know about transportation project earmarks:

1. Work directly with your Member of Congress

All requests must come directly from a Member of Congress. Any Representative can submit up to ten projects for direct funding but must also rank their top five requests. Members of Congress must also certify that neither they nor their families have any financial interest in the requested projects, and all project requests will be publicly available.

2. Get project details together

In the guidance from the Committee, offices are strongly encouraged to only submit requests for projects that are already listed in approved plans. Projects that are not in the Transportation Improvement Plan (TIP) or the State Transportation Improvement Plan (STIP) are subject to additional requirements for consideration.

Congressional offices will also have to provide the following information:

  • The name, type, and location of the project, including a brief description that outlines benefits.
  • The project sponsor. For-profit sponsors are not allowed.
  • The amount requested (which can't exceed the total federal share), total project costs, source of non-federal funding, and overall project share.
  • The phase of project development and status in the environmental review process.
  • A description of the public engagement process.
  • Indicate whether previous federal funds have been provided and whether the project has been proposed for discretionary grant funding.

3. Show local support and value

Every request must have letters of support from local officials and organizations. But, with competition expected to be fierce, you will need more than just letters. Projects with broad-based local backing are more likely to be prioritized. Use the local plan to highlight the broad benefits of the project beyond transportation metrics. Highlighting the economic, social, or environmental benefits will be valuable in securing support. Local elected officials will play an important role in this process, but it is important to demonstrate a broad coalition backing the project and a wide array of benefits. Planners can be vital leaders in identifying projects, highlighting benefits and connections, and demonstrating public support and the impact on recovery.

4. Prepare a plan and build support

There will be a lot of competition, so focusing on the needs and perspectives of the congressional office is essential. It is a good idea to contact the office to understand the priorities and process for that individual Member of Congress. Coordinate locally with a range of leaders and stakeholders. Be strategic in building and reflecting local support across a wide range of stakeholders. Use the planning process to highlight public support and the connection to local outcomes that will resonate with the Member of Congress. Also, one of the benefits of earmarks is increasing bipartisanship, so there may be opportunities for regional support for proposed projects that can reflect bipartisanship and collaboration among congressional offices.

Earmarks Strengthen Advocacy Relationships

Engaging in the earmarks process is also a way of building understanding and support with congressional offices for your plan and the role of planning in providing value for the district. It's another step in deepening an advocacy relationship that supports you, your work, and your community.

Top image: Sunset view at Queensboro Bridge Midtown Manhattan. Getty Images photo.

March 25, 2021

By Jason Jordan