10. Grants and Quality
What role should National Scenic Byways Program grant applications and selection play in maintaining and encouraging high quality?
Over the life of the Program to date (1992-2007), the National Scenic Byways Program has provided 2,450 grants totaling $308,365,880. Program grants have supported projects as basic as highway safety pull-offs and as spectacular as visitor pull-offs with interpretive facilities overlooking breathtaking vistas. Some grants have resulted in exceptional experiences and facilities for byway travelers, most have enhanced the collection, and a few have been minimal in their impact.
If one of the major policies for management of the Program involves a consistent effort to improve and maintain the quality of the byways, are there ways in which the grant program should be administered differently in order to support that policy?
The flexibility of the grant process has facilitated creative solutions and fostered innovative partnerships.
Engaged communities have sought creative partnerships, provided in-kind services and built partnerships and sought matches from Federal Agencies.
Grant categories certainly could enhance quality.
Grants are awarded to byways for projects that are statutorily eligible and that most competitively meet FHWA's discretionary administrative criteria. The eligible project activity categories are:
- State and Indian Tribe Scenic Byway Programs
- Corridor Management Plans
- Safety Improvements
- Byway Facilities
- Access to Recreation
- Resource Protection
- Interpretive Information
- Marketing Program
FHWA's current administrative criteria are as follows:
- Greatest Strategic Benefits
- State, Indian Tribe and Byway Priorities
- Project Benefits
- Projects Meeting Critical Needs
- Funding Expenditures
- Ready to Implement
- Leveraging of Private or Other Public Funding
- Complete Applications
- Other Considerations
All of these categories and criteria encourage the maintenance and enhancement of byway quality. No doubt, most NSBP grants funds do enhance byway quality to some degree. The question is whether more deliberate attention to the connection between grants and the quality of projects could result in more measurable improvements in byway quality.
Data illustrate where and how funds were spent, but not whether the funds were spent well.
The figure below presents the distribution of funded projects by funding amount across the United States. This information covers the period from 1999 to the year 2006. Without extensive research, it would be difficult to determine the extent that the funds enhanced the quality of the byway collection or not.
Funded byway projects have no formal review after implementation/construction.
Once NSBP grants are approved and funds are transferred to State and Tribal DOTs, there is limited oversight or follow-up regarding the contribution of the project to the overall America's Byways® collection. Are projects being completed in a timely manner and as proposed in their grant request? Could successful byway projects be showcased as "Best Practices"?
Require byways to prepare grant progress reports.
Require local byway grant recipients to prepare an annual grant progress report until the project for which funds were awarded is completed. Such reports should be simple in format—so as not to burden local byway advocates—but specific, including basic information such as:
- Consultants—qualifications sought, interviews conducted, or hiring completed
- Reviews—environmental and historic preservation reviews begun, in progress, or completed
- Construction/Procurement—construction begun (expected time to completion), planning underway/completed, printing, fabrication or installation completed
Information could be gathered online with check boxes for basic progress and space for clarification notes. The form might also provide an option for minor modifications to the grant, with the approval of the State or Indian tribe byway coordinator, allowing for responsible additions/alterations within the funding category (and grant award amount) based on new opportunities/considerations after the project is underway. For example, an information brochure might evolve to a booklet as research yields new insights into visitor needs, resulting in a larger publication, but fewer units than envisioned. Additionally consider a final check box at the completion of the project for the State or Indian tribe byway coordinator to certify that the project has been completed according to the grant request.
Tie grants to corridor management plans or annual updates.
The Program could adopt a requirement to tie all byway grants to specific projects recommended in the corridor management plan or related to the intrinsic quality summary in the CMP. For example, a grant could be awarded to secure easements for a scenic area not specifically noted as a byway project goal in the CMP, but relevant to the significance of the scenic area as noted in the intrinsic quality summary. Through CMP updates, or preparation of an annual action plan that relates to maintaining or enhancing the quality of their byway, local byway organizations would be provided with additional flexibility in identifying new byway project goals for which grants could be sought. Newly identified threats to the quality the byway, or unexpected opportunities to enhance intrinsic qualities, could be outlined through such updates or plans. These annual or short-term plans should include specific investments that the byway group will make in order to maintain or improve the quality of the byway. The Program would require that part of the grant application submittal includes the byway's previous action plans and reports on their level of accomplishment. These concise reports might ask for explanations of why projects were or were not successful.
Introduce grant selection criteria that relate to quality enhancement.
If byways are clear on the type of actions that will be necessary to maintain and enhance their byway, then it is reasonable to expect local groups to be working toward those goals on an annual basis. Grant selection criteria can specify that preference will be given to byways that are clear on their quality enhancement objectives and have demonstrated evidence that they are achieving those objectives.
To the degree that grant funding moves a byway group toward those maintenance and enhancement objectives, grant funds are well spent. Grant funds that do not work to maintain or enhance the quality of the byway would be given lower priority. Grant funds spent on low priority projects are more poorly spent than those spent on a high priority projects.
Establish an expert review panel to review grant applications.
The development of a panel to help review grant requests for Program eligibility requirements, similar to the expert review panel that currently advises the NSBP on byway nominations, should be considered. Such a panel might review all grants, or only those over a certain dollar value. The panel could weigh their collective professional familiarity with the byway corridors against requested projects and (when appropriate) past performance. An alternative to a full panel could be expert groups based on the eligible byway grants funding categories. Individuals or groups of experts in conservation, land management, architecture, landscape architecture, preservation, and planning could review grants submitted for resource protection, and experts in marketing, exhibit design, tourism development, and interpretive writing could review projects submitted for interpretive facilities, for example.
Establish a random audit for completed byway projects.
Have Federal Highway Administration staff or byway experts review random projects completed with the use of byway grant funds for quality, completeness, and accuracy to the grant request. In addition to the incentive created by the potential review of byway projects by the Program, such a review may identify projects for potential "best practices" recommendations.