A Worthy Alphabet Soup

March 1, 2023
FHWA’s PROTECT resiliency funding pays off in the long term

By David Cullen

It’s great to be flooded with funding for roads and bridges, even if you must risk drowning in acronyms to get it flowing your way. The monumental trillion-dollar Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) act has so many projects to delineate that the U.S. Dept. of Transportation is cooking up some serious alphabet soup to spell them all out.

Enter the “Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-Saving Transportation” (PROTECT) funding program. That’s a mouthful and a good example of the myriad ways that IIJA, a.k.a. the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, will deliver high-calorie solutions to improve specific infrastructure shortcomings.

PROTECT earmarks $7.3 billion in formula and competitive grant funding over five years to help states and communities better prepare for and respond to extreme weather events, such as wildfires, flooding, and extreme heat.

According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), this program aims to make surface transportation “more resilient to natural hazards, including climate change, sea level rise, flooding, extreme weather events, and other natural disasters through support of planning activities, resilience improvements, community resilience and evacuation routes, and at-risk costal infrastructure.”

FHWA will allocate this funding as a lump sum for each state, and then divide that total among apportioned programs. The contract authority is from the Highway Account of the Highway Trust Fund and subject to the overall federal-aid obligation limitation.

PROTECT requires each state to use at least 2% of its program funding each fiscal year for specified types of resilience-related planning activities, such as developing technical capacity-building, a resilience improvement plan, resilience planning, or evacuation planning and preparation.

U.S. DOT has released guidance on the PROTECT formula program and will separately issue a Notice of Funding Opportunity for the PROTECT discretionary grant program.

“Congress has structured this program to really encourage the thoughtfulness of how we spend these PROTECT dollars to encourage resiliency [to natural disaster and other disruptions] and really [to consider the long-term investment here,” said Eric Beightel, principal consultant for infrastructure policy and environmental strategy at HDR, in a Roads & Bridges webinar last year. “PROTECT plans to improve surface transportation that is at increased risk of natural disasters, whether it be due to rising sea level or extreme weather or flooding events and also funds for evacuation routes.”

Beightel contended that making existing infrastructure more resilient to the effects of climate change is a cost-saving measure in the long run. “It may cost more upfront, but we've seen the longevity of these projects be much, much better if we make smart investments. And I think that is the really important opportunity that PROTECT presents to us,” he said.

In that same webinar, which was sponsored by Bentley Systems and titled, “Navigating IIJA Transportation Funding Opportunities,” Ben Hammel, director of strategy for Critical Infrastructure, Transportation, and Digital Identity markets at Microsoft, said he was impressed by the proactiveness fostered by the PROTECT funding.

“We all think and understand that being proactive saves us money long term, but this particular program actually is a huge opportunity to take existing projects and look at them more from a resiliency point of view, that proactive component to it,” he said. “I mean we’re not filling potholes. We're actually increasing and making the whole infrastructure system withstand what we know as our transportation needs today. I love the fact that this is an example of a program that's really pushing our states and our agencies to be proactive.”

Hammel also advised that when it comes to seeking PROTECT competitive grants, that “you're going to need to be able to produce a document describing exactly what you want and how you're going to use the money. And it'll be in multiple phases. You'll need to put that process in place so that you can be quick to the response and win some of these competitive grants.”

David Lieberman, director, U.S. Government Relations for Bentley Systems, a critical-infrastructure software provider, stressed during the webinar the importance of staying on top of PROTECT’s deadlines.

“I think a lot of these FHWA Notices of Funding Opportunity have either a 60- or 90- day window in which they're promulgated and then for you to respond,” he said. “So, prioritize getting ahead of things and having the wherewithal to come up with a themed narrative and some good content to put in an application within a one- or two-month period. That’s not a lot of time.” R&B

David Cullen has been covering transportation issues since 1981. He has received several Jesse H. Neal Awards for Outstanding Journalism and the ASPBE Stephen Barr Award for Individual Feature Writing.

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