Emergency Transit Assistance:

Federal Funding for Recent Disasters, and Options for the Future

GAO-08-243: Published: Feb 15, 2008. Publicly Released: Feb 15, 2008.

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Major disasters can disrupt transit operations, destroy vehicles and facilities, and impede the ability of people to reach essential relief and medical services and return to their homes and jobs. GAO determined (1) the federal role in assisting transit agencies after a major disaster; (2) the amounts, sources, and uses of federal disaster assistance for transit since 1998; (3) the factors that affected the timeliness and effectiveness of transit assistance after the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes; and (4) additional options for providing assistance to transit after a major disaster. GAO reviewed laws, regulations, and guidance; analyzed DOT and FEMA data; and interviewed officials with FEMA, DOT, state and local agencies, and others.

The federal government provides transit services and assists transit agencies after a major disaster, primarily through two federal agencies--the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Federal Transit Administration (FTA). FEMA is authorized to provide emergency transportation services under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (the Stafford Act). FTA administers federal support for transit but does not have a specific ongoing program or funding to help restore transit after disasters. FEMA and FTA have provided approximately $5.0 billion in disaster assistance to fund transit services and assist transit agencies since 1998, primarily through supplemental appropriations. The agencies provided nearly $4.7 billion to New York City after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, primarily to rebuild destroyed transit infrastructure, and another $232 million after the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, largely to provide transit services for displaced populations. FEMA and FTA have also provided at least $51 million for other disasters since 1998. FEMA's database for its Public Assistance program does not have the capability to sort transit projects from other projects. GAO took steps to identify this funding, but the information presented should be considered minimum amounts. Additional funds may have been dedicated for transit purposes. GAO believes the magnitude of uncertainty is small compared with the $5.0 billion in assistance for transit. After the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes, FEMA and FTA faced challenges that impeded both the timeliness and effectiveness of their assistance to transit. Although the Stafford Act authorizes federal assistance to meet emergency needs, neither FEMA nor FTA had mechanisms to provide transit funding immediately after the disasters. FEMA also lacked guidance on the types of transit services it would fund and criteria for determining the duration of funding. As a result, funding approvals after the 2005 Gulf Coast hurricanes took from 1 month to as long as 4 months, and FEMA ended funding even though transit agencies in Louisiana and Mississippi believed that they had continuing needs. Additional options exist--at the state, local, and federal levels--for providing assistance to transit after a major disaster. At the state and local levels, mutual aid agreements between states and others can direct needed resources to transit agencies following a disaster. Existing programs and temporary authorities that Congress had provided to DOT also suggest options, including giving FTA permanent authority to allow transit agencies to use existing grant funds for disaster recovery. As another option, Congress could establish an emergency relief program for FTA, similar to the DOT program for highways, or expand the scope of the highway program to include transit. Such a program could include "quick release"--a mechanism used to approve and release emergency highway funds within 1 to 2 days. Each of these options has advantages, such as expedited release and better targeting of funds, and consequences, such as potentially increased costs to the federal government.

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 promote timely and effective disaster assistance for public transit, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to develop guidance or regulations outlining the types of operating assistance for transit that FEMA will or will not fund following a disaster and criteria for determining the duration of funding for these services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: DHS has not yet acted on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To promote timely and effective disaster assistance for public transit, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to draft prescripted mission assignments for public transportation services to provide a frame of reference for FEMA, FTA, and state transportation departments in developing mission assignments after future disasters. The prescripted mission assignments could reflect FEMA's guidance and criteria for funding public transportation services, reduce ambiguity, and potentially expedite their issuance so that agencies that are relying on FEMA funding could begin their disaster recovery.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Open

    Comments: DHS has not yet acted on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enable FTA to provide more direct and timely assistance to transit agencies following a disaster, the Secretary of Transportation should evaluate the feasibility of options to increase FTA's authority to provide immediate financial assistance, and seek legislative authority as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, GAO identified the need for more timely and effective assistance to transit providers after major disasters. Specifically, GAO found that although the Stafford Act authorizes federal assistance to meet emergency needs, FEMA and FTA lack mechanisms to direct funding to transit providers immediately after these disasters. GAO reported that options existed, including increasing FTA's authority to provide immediate financial assistance after a disaster, modeled after a similar Department of Transportation program for highways. Therefore, GAO recommended that the Secretary of Transportation evaluate the feasibility of options to increase FTA's authority to provide immediate financial assistance, and to seek legislative authority as appropriate. The Department agreed with the recommendation, and in its FY 2012 and 2013 budget proposals, requested funds for a new Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program, similar to the highway program, to support the immediate needs of public transportation providers in the wake of disasters, citing GAO's report as the basis for its request. In March 2012, the Senate approved S.1813, creating a Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program. As a result of GAO's work, both the Administration and Congress have moved to address an important gap in the ability of the federal government to aid communities after disasters.

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