Transportation Accessibility:

Lack of Data and Limited Enforcement Options Limit Federal Oversight

GAO-07-1126: Published: Sep 19, 2007. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2007.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) provides people with disabilities the legal right to access transportation and public rights-of-way, including sidewalks and street crossings. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and Department of Justice (DOJ) share responsibility for overseeing ADA compliance. GAO was asked to review federal oversight and enforcement of ADA compliance, including (1) what is known about compliance, (2) difficulties the federal government faces in overseeing and enforcing compliance, and (3) the sources of federal help and any gaps in that help. GAO's work encompassed a wide range of federal agencies and other entities, such as industry associations, transportation providers, and disability advocacy groups, as well as detailed reviews in eight cities across the country.

While data indicate accessibility is improving for public transit, the extent of ADA compliance for other modes of transportation and public rights-of-way is unknown due to the lack of reliable data. For example, there are no national data on compliance with requirements for ADA paratransit--transit service that complements bus or rail transit. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) solicits compliance data from registered commercial bus companies, but the response rate is low (13 percent in 2006), and the agency has not verified or analyzed the data. In other instances, such as the accessibility of Amtrak's train stations, data are still being developed. Federal agencies face three main difficulties overseeing and enforcing compliance. First, they differ greatly in the degree to which they have an oversight framework in place. For example, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) has a memorandum of understanding in place with DOJ specifying each agency's responsibilities for public transit, while the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have no formal mechanism for coordinating with DOJ. Second, federal agencies' lack of data about compliance limits DOT's ability to target its oversight and enforcement efforts. Only the Federal Transit Administration uses data in this manner. Third, DOT officials regard their enforcement options, such as withholding grant money, as lengthy and complex processes that would not be undertaken lightly. DOT officials said the authority to impose fines--an option they lack--would be more useful. Federal agencies provide a variety of technical assistance to help entities comply with the ADA, but gaps in regulations and guidance exist. For example, one gap involves a requirement for local governments to develop plans for identifying and correcting accessibility problems with public rights-of-way. As a result, GAO found confusion about which entities needed to develop the plans and how to use and update plans once they were developed. DOJ officials said most localities had not developed such plans, leaving themselves open to private lawsuits and federal enforcement action.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To expand the range of options available to DOT modal administrations for enforcing the ADA for surface transportation and public rights-of-way, the Secretary of Transportation should develop a legislative proposal that would give DOT the authority to impose civil penalties for ADA violations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: While DOT officials believe this would be a nice option to have, it would require some legislative changes; and there is no interest in the current DOT administration for developing such legislation.

    Recommendation: To increase coordination and communication among DOT's modal administrations and with DOJ, thereby improving DOT's ability to oversee and enforce the ADA, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrators of FHWA, FMCSA, and FRA to enter into formal agreements with DOJ to clearly delineate responsibility for enforcing the provisions of the ADA pertaining to surface transportation and public rights-of-way. Furthermore, the Secretary of Transportation, through the Office of the Secretary, should establish or designate a formal working group or other coordinating body (such as the Disability Law Coordinating Council) to ensure a coordinated effort within DOT for overseeing and enforcing the ADA, including identifying ways to improve data for measuring compliance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, GAO reported that the Department of Transportation's (DOT) modal administrations ensured compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) in different ways and lacked coordination, resulting in gaps in oversight and enforcement for intercity passenger rail and commercial buses and possible duplication of effort for public rights-of-way. The ADA divides oversight and enforcement authority between DOT and the Department of Justice (DOJ). To ensure coordinated and consistent enforcement between these two agencies, one DOT modal administration, Federal Transit Administration (FTA), signed a memorandum of understanding with DOJ that established a formal working relationship and defined their respective roles in ADA oversight and enforcement, However, Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) did not have a similar memorandum of understanding with DOJ, resulting in gaps in oversight for Amtrak and commercial buses and possible duplication of effort in compliance assistance and oversight of public right-of-way efforts. Similarly, DOT established a Disability Law Coordinating Council (DLCC) to coordinate the agency's disability-related guidance and policies, but the Council's purpose did not include coordination of oversight and enforcement efforts. Therefore, GAO recommended that (1) FRA, FMCSA, and FHWA enter into formal agreements with DOJ to clearly delineate responsibility for enforcing the provisions of the ADA and (2) DOT establish or designate a formal internal group to coordinate effort within DOT for overseeing and enforcing the ADA. In 2011, GAO confirmed that FMCSA entered into an agreement with DOJ that defines each agency's role in ADA oversight and enforcement. In addition, GAO confirmed that DOT uses the DLCC to coordinate the agency's ADA oversight and enforcement efforts. These DOT actions substantially implement GAO's recommendations. As a result, there will be better coordination among DOT's modal administrations, which will enhance the agency's ADA oversight and enforcement.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOT's oversight of ADA compliance, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FRA, to conduct the periodic reviews of Amtrak's ADA compliance that are required by regulation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2007, GAO reported that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) was not conducting reviews to assess Amtrak's compliance with provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Department of Transportation regulations implementing the ADA require Amtrak to make its stations and passenger cars accessible and the FRA to conduct reviews that assess Amtrak's compliance. Instead, FRA said it provides ADA-related oversight by reviewing Amtrak's complaint resolutions, administering Amtrak's grant agreement, and reviewing plans or designs of certain new passenger cars and station platforms, upon referral by Amtrak. Nevertheless, without FRA conducting direct oversight, Amtrak was largely responsible for ensuring its own compliance with the ADA. GAO recommended that FRA conduct periodic reviews of Amtrak's ADA compliance, as required by regulation. In 2011, GAO confirmed that FRA was conducting regular compliance reviews of Amtrak's ADA compliance. As a result, FRA has enhanced its ability to oversee Amtrak's progress in implementing the ADA provisions.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOT's oversight of ADA compliance, the Secretary of Transportation should develop criteria for determining circumstances under which DOT would withhold all or part of a grantee's federal funds for instances of ADA noncompliance, which could streamline the process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to DOT, each operating administration, coordinating through the Disability Law Coordinating Council (DLCC), will develop criteria to identify the violations of ADA and Section 504 programs that are worthy of initiating enforcement action under the ADA and/or withholding funds under Section 504. According to DOT, actions of this kind are a necessary step when negotiation and other informal means have been unable to produce compliance and regulated entities must be clearly aware of such sanctions if DOT's compliance efforts are to be taken seriously, although the sanctions are not to be undertaken lightly due to possibility of disrupting DOT-funded programs. DLCC will undertake discussions of these sanctions before the end of fiscal year 2008. In a subsequent discussion in 2011, a DOT representative told us that DOT had not developed these criteria and currently had no plans to do so.

    Recommendation: To reduce confusion among state and local entities regarding ADA-required transition plans, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), to work with Department of Justice (DOJ) to use the results of both FHWA's program assessments and the National Cooperative Highway Research Program's study to develop and disseminate guidance for creating and updating transition plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to DOT, FHWA will continue to work with its partners in developing comprehensive guidance on transition plans for state transportation agencies (STA). The first round of baseline assessments of STA civil rights programs has indicated a strong need for guidance and direction in this area. FHWA also views ADA and Section 504 transition plans as a tool that will help STAs better manage limited financial resources while proactively meeting the needs of their pedestrian base. FHWA is aware that a number of STAs are currently working on developing transition plans, and the agency intends to provide further direction to all STAs by the end of fiscal year 2008. In 2011, FHWA has not developed any additional guidance.

    Recommendation: Given gaps in data on the status of ADA compliance of commercial buses, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and DOT's Office of the Secretary, to implement their plan to gather, review, and verify information on demand-response and fixed-route commercial bus service and determine whether to retain or modify the existing regulations, as required by DOT's regulations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: According to DOT, FMCSA will obtain the bus accessibility data for demand-response and fixed-route commercial bus service and provide it to the Office of the Secretary (OST) for implementation of the study plan to conduct the review. To the extent possible, data will be derived from reports filed by over-the-road bus companies. Based on an analysis of this data, DOT will make a determination as to the nature and extent of other data that may be necessary to ensure compliance in this sector, where DOT is aware that issues have occurred in the past. FMCSA and OST will begin assembling and analyzing this data before the end of calendar year 2008. According to a DOT Office of Civil Rights official, this data collection effort did not occur. FMCSA has turned to conducting more compliance reviews of over-the road buses which includes checking for ADA compliance.

    Recommendation: To improve the availability of data on Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and improve Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) ability to oversee Amtrak's progress in implementing the ADA, the President of Amtrak should continue to report to FRA on the status of Amtrak's review of the accessibility of its stations. As required by Amtrak's fiscal year 2006 and 2007 grant agreements, this report should include data for each station and actions required to bring it into compliance, as well as an overall schedule for bringing all Amtrak stations into compliance.

    Agency Affected: National Railroad Passenger Corporation (AMTRAK)

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Amtrak submitted a report on February 1, 2009, entitled "Intercity Rail Stations Served by Amtrak: A Report on Accessibility and Compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990." Amtrak sent this report to several congressional committees and the Secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT). The report provides information for all stations that Amtrak serves that are subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), including actions and the estimated cost to bring them into compliance. The report also provides an overall schedule for bringing the stations into compliance. As noted during our engagement, one of the major challenges that Amtrak faced in achieving compliance was determining who was responsible for making and paying for changes when one entity owns the station building and another owns the platforms. In its report, Amtrak identifies the owner or owners of each station that Amtrak serves and the extent to which each party is responsible for station accessibility, the current level of compliance for each station, and the estimated cost to bring each station into compliance. Amtrak officials indicated that they will update the report annually. Although using a different means from the one specified in our recommendation, this report provides the same information to DOT - including FRA - that we intended, and therefore fulfills the spirit of the recommendation.

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