Transportation Infrastructure:

Review of Project Selection Process for Five FHWA Discretionary Programs

RCED-98-14: Published: Nov 7, 1997. Publicly Released: Dec 5, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Transportation's (DOT) project selection process for five federal discretionary programs, focusing on: (1) the selection process and criteria DOT uses to fund projects under its discretionary highway programs; and (2) how DOT's process has changed and how the changes may have affected which projects DOT selects for discretionary funding.

GAO noted that: (1) DOT uses a two-phase process for selecting and funding transportation projects for the five discretionary programs GAO reviewed; (2) in the first phase, Federal Highway Administration (FHwA) program staff in the field and headquarters compile and evaluate the applications that states submit for discretionary funding; (3) program staff screen the applications by applying eligibility criteria established by statute or administratively; (4) on the basis of written criteria, program staff group the projects into four categories that range in priority from most promising to not qualified and submit the groupings to the Office of the Administrator; (5) the submission to the Office of the Administrator provides information on each candidate project, data on discretionary funds that each state received during prior years, and the current level of congressional interest; (6) in the second phase, the Office of the Administrator uses the information submitted by the program staff, as well as other factors, to evaluate the projects and make the final selections; (7) according to FHwA's Acting Deputy Administrator, the Office of the Administrator has tried to ensure that the dollars are spread fairly among all the states and that the interests of members of Congress are addressed; (8) in contrast to the analyses that the program staff complete in the first phase, the Office of the Administrator does not document the factors it uses to select the final projects or its rationale for making the final selections; (9) DOT is authorized to establish procedures for reviewing and selecting transportation projects under its discretionary programs; (10) GAO's review of the selection process revealed that under the current process, in place during fiscal years 1995-1997, the Office of the Administrator relied more on its discretion and less on the program staff's input and analyses than it did under an earlier process used during fiscal years 1992-1994; (11) under this new process, which was designed to provide the Office of the Administrator with more flexibility in taking into account items such as the geographic distribution of funding, 73 percent of the projects that the Office of the Administrator selected were categorized as "most promising" or "promising"; (12) the Office of the Administrator selected a declining portion of projects from these categories over the 3-year period; and (13) during fiscal years 1992-94, when staff ranked projects in order of priority and recommended specific projects and funding amounts, the Office of the Administrator selected over 98 percent of all projects that the program staff recommended.

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