As Congress and the Biden Administration continue negotiating a $1+ trillion infrastructure bill, focus will inevitably shift to how quickly projects can be authorized, funded and constructed. Having spent more than 40-years with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, including 15-years working with project sponsors, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Congress, I have seen project successes and disappointments. This includes “disappointments” that probably could have been avoided and “successes” that took years longer than necessary to complete.
Numerous successful projects follow efficient paths through study and construction authorization followed by design approval and the actual construction. In many of those instances, the projects’ non-federal sponsors, such as large ports, flood projects for big cities, and levee and navigation districts, are well-funded, well-staffed and experienced with Corps projects.
However, many non-federal sponsors do not have one or more of these advantages. They may be small towns with a single project, such as a flood control project; a small developer interested in a one-time project such as a small navigation project; or a sponsor with a project that does not fit well with existing policies or administration priorities.
If you count yourself among this latter group of non-federal sponsors, here are a few suggestions to help better understand the process for approval and funding of federal infrastructure projects:
Appreciate that authorization and funding rules are complicated. Project sponsors might understandably view the authorization and funding rules as straightforward. However, many projects require months or years longer than necessary to complete because sponsors may not appreciate specific requirements of various legal and policy interpretations. I I have personally been involved in projects where the sponsor believed they could prepare the planning study and obtain construction authorization quicker than the Corps’ District office. In one instance, applicants seeking to connect a shallow draft barge canal to a major U.S. port did complete the study within four years, but did not recognize all the options available to authorize or fund a project thus contributing to a delay of another ten years in obtaining construction funding. I In all, it was a total of 16-years from start to funded project. To be fair, there were a variety of reasons for the delays, not the least of which was inability to meet OMB priority criteria for funding. Under the best of circumstances, it can be a tough, long undertaking. There is no stigma in seeking expert advice to better appreciate this complicated process.
Avoid missing deadlines. Many submittals are due by key dates, and you will lose an authorization cycle (at least two years) or an appropriation cycle (one year) if you are unable to meet a deadline. Also, Corps District personnel have no obligation to alert sponsors to upcoming process deadlines. After all, the Corps does not “own” your project. As a result, Corps professionals may appear taciturn, answering only exactly what is asked.
Ensure your document submissions are as clear as possible. I am directly familiar with a corporation that lost a year or more in valuable planning time because of a poorly worded environmental filing. In that case, the applicants wanted a general environmental study for an environmental restoration project. However, their request for study authorization linked the issue to an existing Corps project. Reasonably, in my view, the Corps presumed a project authority already existed and therefore concluded that a general environmental study was inappropriate. The corporation’s request was therefore relegated to their annual report’s appendix and was not recommended for authorization.
Bottom line: Miscommunication and lack of clarity in that request led to a
misunderstanding that could have been avoided.
Be aware of the Corps’ and Congress’ internal timetables. I have seen many cases where project sponsors sought authorization but lost two years or more by not synchronizing submission material to the Corps or to Congress in accordance with established timetables. Consequently, the sponsor had to wait until the following appropriation cycle. In my experience, it is common for sponsors to underestimate the number of months in advance material needs to be submitted to avoid losing at least a year for an appropriation.
Understand the Corps’ internal budget process. Over the course of my career, I have observed project sponsors who did not understand that they could still advocate, in writing and in person, to be included in an appropriation bill even if their project was not in the Corps’ original budget. It is important to use all available avenues to achieve success.
Often, the above steps necessarily must pass through a town council or local board before local staff are able to submit material. Advanced planning, with the assistance of experienced experts who understand these processes and policy nuances, frequently enables success.
Ultimately, efficient project advancement maintains momentum and saves time and money. Non-federal sponsors with limited familiarity about Corps projects and processes should carefully evaluate the advantages of seeking outside assistance before going it alone.
A member of the Dawson team since 2014, Gary was Chief of Civil Works Programs Management. He is 1 of 5 Dawson members to be inducted into the Army Corps of Engineers’ Gallery of Distinguished Civilian Employees, an exclusive list of former Corps employees.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dawson & Associates.