Municipalities ill-equipped to apply for transportation grants



(The Center Square) — Though small localities qualify for state and federal funds to match transportation projects, they have a devil of a time getting them.

PennDOT’s State Transportation Commission has cast its attention on the problem, partnering with the Center for Rural Pennsylvania to survey the issues and suggest more state matching funds to overcome some hurdles and change some property tax rules.

The fundamental problem is local government capacity. Grants are hard to find, track, and apply for when so many municipalities already juggle so many priorities. The well-staffed and well-resourced places, then, get the money.

“All the funding that’s available — the challenge is that smaller local governments, rural municipalities, and those municipalities that are fiscally challenged are having problems accessing that funding,” said Tracey Vernon, founder of consulting firm Vernon Land Use, which conducted the study.

Local governments struggle to raise funds to match in the first place, she said, due to a lack of taxable property as well as few staff available to apply to the programs. Some programs want local governments to match funds up to 30%, which many can’t do.

Other grant opportunities from the state or the federal government aren’t easy to find and have short application windows.

Vernon gave the example of rural Cameron County, which if it passed a $5 registration fee on cars, would take more than two decades to raise $1 million from it.

The tax base that funds small-town governments, too, is outdated. Vernon noted that almost two dozen counties haven’t conducted a tax assessment since 1989. And many properties are tax-exempt, being owned by governments and non-profit groups, which narrows the tax base.

The result is that roads, bridges and infrastructure in rural areas and small towns in Pennsylvania get neglected.

For places that do get grants, rural and urban, the common factor is inadequate staffing. The Center for Rural Pennsylvania write-up found that rural localities that get competitive grants have almost 15 full-time workers. Those that don’t employ closer to four.

“We have a good opportunity here in Pennsylvania,” Vernon said. “We can adjust our grant funding, and that’s great to get started, but we have so many bridges, roads, airports — so much infrastructure that it needs more than just grant funding.”

Changing things won’t necessarily be smooth or easy.

Vernon suggested municipal consolidation as a potential route, lowering the level of local match funding required from small or financially limited places and creating a state program that would match federal funds. Working with non-profit groups and private developers, too, could help, the report noted, as well as getting municipalities to apply for grants together.

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