A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week highlights a lack of project selection transparency and has caught the attention of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Highways and Transit Subcommittee.
GAO’s report focused on the selection of projects under the Nationally Significant Freight and Highways Projects (NSFHP) competitive grant program, created under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act in 2015. The previous administration issued the first round of grants under the program, which it called FASTLANE, in 2016. The current administration has renamed the program as the INFRA program and is currently receiving applications for additional grants.
According to the report: “Based on a review of FASTLANE’s decision-making documentation, GAO was unable to determine the rationale for selecting the 18 awarded projects. This documentation restated the anticipated benefits of the selected projects, but did not otherwise provide insight into why some projects were selected for awards over others. Without complete documentation of the decision-making, the transparency of the application review and selection process is limited.”
The report found that the agencies involved with reviewing projects under consideration - Federal High Way Administration (FHWA), Maritime Administration(MARAD), and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) -did not have consistent evaluation guidelines with which to compare. For example, one agency's reviewer could assign a 'recommended' rating when a project met that agency's criteria, but the same project could be rated just 'acceptable' if it did not meet another set of criteria used by a separate agency. The GOA's report said these inconsistencies may have lead to an unequal selection of projects. In the technical review ratings, FHWA judged 77 percent of projects 'recommended', whereas MARAD rated only 41 percent as 'recommended."
Lack of documentation and following its own guidance was another issue the GAO report highlighted, finding DOT only partially developed a plan for administering a technical review, did not notify applicants of awards decisions, and did not document the rational for award decisions.
This is not the first time the GAO has found 'limited transparency' in DOT grant programs. In 2011, TIGER grants were questioned and remains open pending a DOT Inspector General audit of the TIGER program. The Hurricane Sandy transit resilience grant program in 2016 was found to have 'a pattern of problems' regarding documentation when evaluating potential projects.
In light of these findings, the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is calling for further oversight of the grand program.
“It’s critical that the Department, regardless of the administration, carry out this program as Congress intended, and that these competitive grants be evaluated and selected in a fair and transparent manner. There needs to be more clarity in this process in the future, and we have requested GAO’s continued assessment of the program to help ensure that happens,” said Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-PA), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Sam Graves (R-MO), and Highways and Transit Subcommittee Ranking Member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) in a joint statement.