Rick Dimino

Gov. Maura Healey came into office with a promise to maximize federal funds to address infrastructure needs in Massachusetts. Recent successes show this this plan is working.

A blueprint is also now emerging on how to win large infrastructure grants from the Biden Administration that begins with leadership from the governor, collaboration with the federal delegation in Washington, D.C. and active support from businesses and advocates in Massachusetts. This approach led to wins for the Interstate 90 Allston Multimodal Project and the Sagamore Bridge, and it can help unlock additional transformational projects in the next few years.

President Joe Biden signed the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) in fall 2021, which started a new era for federal-state partnerships for infrastructure projects. This law is heavily weighted toward distributing money through competitive grant programs rather than the traditional formula funding programs that give money automatically to every state. The U.S. Department of Transportation alone will be awarding over $100 billion in discretionary infrastructure grants through 2026, and the competition is steep. In the first year of this bill, Massachusetts applied multiple times for grants to address the Cape Cod bridges and the Allston I-90 project, but ultimately the federal governor chose projects in other states to fund.

In 2023, Gov. Healey reorganized state government to focus on these competitive grant opportunities in the BIL and opportunities in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). She appointed Quentin Palfrey as the director of federal funds and Will Rasky as the new director of federal affairs.  Both worked the Biden administration and brought invaluable insight into navigating the federal infrastructure grant process. Within a year of these two hires, Massachusetts received a $108 million grant for East-West Rail, $335 million for the Allston Multimodal Project, and $373 million for the Sagamore Bridge.

Clear Priorities Are Key

Even with the right people in place, both in the Healey-Driscoll administration and within the very influential Massachusetts congressional delegation, a single state needs to manage its own aspirations. There are over 400 different federal grant programs funded through the BIL and IRA, ranging from upgrades to bridges, transit and airports, to environmental and energy needs, broadband internet, workforce development, dam repairs and many others.

Since you can’t win every grant application and the Biden administration is committed to awarding funds throughout the entire nation, the best approach is to set attention on the most compelling grant applications before developing a strong advocacy plan.

This approach worked for Gov. Healey with the three large grant awards, and it is most apparent in the recent grant award for Allston. Despite initial setbacks, a concerted effort from business organizations, community activists and labor groups rallied around the project, demonstrating its broad-based support and regional significance.

Business organizations, such as the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, A Better City and MassBIO sent a coalition letter supporting the project. Dozens of community activists from the Allston and Cambridge area expressed hope that this project would be funded to achieve many of their long-supported transit and community development goals. Labor groups also weighed in with their endorsement letters. Finally, Gov. Healey, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley also appeared in a short campaign video to highlight the potential for the project to say it is worthy of federal support.

Time to Get the Next Projects Ready

This coalition strategy plan worked and can be replicated again in the future. Of course, advocacy plans are only possible for infrastructure projects with broad support and are in synch with federal construction timelines. The shovel-ready nature of infrastructure projects is one factor that Massachusetts leaders should consider as they look forward for the final few years of BIL and IRA grant applications.

There are many major infrastructure needs for Massachusetts, from coastline resiliency to improvements to the MBTA system and decarbonization projects like the electrification of the T’s commuter rail and the state’s many bus systems. Today, most of these projects would not ready to go if the federal funds were to be granted in Massachusetts tomorrow. This is why the state government should be doing everything possible to advance state projects through the early design and permitting phases, so they can apply for federal grants in the next two years.

Then, if there are a handful of exciting infrastructure projects that are in design and considered top priorities of the governor, the non-government coalition of businesses, labor and community activists can reunite to persuade federal officials to support our grant applications and contribute funding. This process is working effectively today, but it can also address the next significant infrastructure projects that Massachusetts will need to prosper in the years ahead.

Rick Dimino is president emeritus of A Better City and a member of the MassDOT board of directors.

We Now Have a Playbook for Big Projects. Let’s Start Planning

by Rick Dimino time to read: 3 min