Transportation Disadvantaged:

Progress in Implementing the New Freedom Program Has Been Limited, and Better Monitoring Procedures Would Help Ensure Program Funds Are Used as Intended

GAO-07-999R: Published: Jul 19, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2007.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990 seeks to ensure equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, transportation, and other matters. ADA sets minimum standards for the accessibility of public transportation systems. For example, for persons unable to use a fixed-route bus or rail system due to disability, transit systems must provide service within three-quarters of a mile of the fixed-route service and during the same hours as the fixed-route service. In February 2001, the Bush Administration announced the New Freedom Initiative, a comprehensive program intended to extend and enhance efforts begun under ADA to help bring Americans with disabilities into mainstream life. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2005 there were about 40 million noninstitutionalized persons over the age of 5 with one or more disabilities. In August 2005, the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act--A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) authorized the New Freedom program, to be administered by the Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration (FTA). This program is designed to support new public transportation services and public transportation alternatives beyond those required by ADA. Congress appropriated $77.2 million for the New Freedom program in fiscal year 2006 and $81.0 million in fiscal year 2007. Program funds are distributed through grants from FTA to entities designated by state governors, and these grants may be used for operating support or capital projects. Operating and capital project grants require state/local matching funds. Projects eligible for New Freedom grants must be derived from a locally developed coordinated public transit-human service transportation plan (coordinated plan) with input from a wide variety of state and local entities, human service agencies, consumer groups, and others. On May 4, 2007, we briefed Congressional staff on the work Congress requested related to FTA's New Freedom program. The objectives of this work were to (1) determine the extent to which FTA has implemented the New Freedom program and identify concerns, if any, of selected state and local entities and (2) determine how FTA monitors program performance.

In general, we found that progress in implementing the New Freedom program had been limited and that state and local officials we spoke with identified implementation concerns. As of March 2007, FTA had awarded few grants--13 grants representing about 3 percent of funds appropriated in fiscal year 2006. FTA issued final program guidance in March 2007, after engaging in a careful and deliberate but time-consuming process of obtaining public and other stakeholder comments on interim versions of the guidance issued in March 2006 and September 2006. FTA officials conducted extensive outreach through listening groups and other mechanisms to help develop the final program guidance. FTA officials said this and compliance with the Administrative Procedures Act limited their progress in program implementation. FTA officials also told us that after consulting with some of its key stakeholders, FTA restricted project eligibility in its final program guidance by requiring that New Freedom projects be both new and beyond ADA requirements. In addition, FTA reported that few governors had designated the entities to receive program funds. Moreover, state and local officials we spoke with had made limited progress in developing coordinated plans. State and local officials also voiced concerns about the impact of matching fund requirements on project selection, the effect of limited program funding on their ability to undertake large projects, and the types of projects that qualify under the "beyond ADA" requirements. We also found that FTA had not fully developed policies and procedures for monitoring and oversight of the New Freedom program. In particular, FTA had not included specific provisions for the New Freedom program in its triennial and state management reviews, nor had it developed guidance about reviews of grantees not subject to triennial or state management reviews (called "spot" reviews). FTA officials told us that they plan to develop such procedures and had already begun to develop questions on the New Freedom program to be incorporated into the agency's existing oversight reviews. We believe that completing these procedures will be important to ensuring that funds are being used in accordance with program requirements and that recipients are being held accountable for their use of program funds. Based on our findings, we recommend that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FTA Administrator to develop and implement a plan to oversee the New Freedom program that includes adding program-specific provisions to the triennial and state management reviews and specifying the role and frequency of spot reviews.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FTA updated its fiscal year 2008 and 2009 triennial review handbooks to include specific provisions on the New Freedom Program. In 2009, FTA also updated the state management review workbook to include such provisions. (State management reviews occur every 4 years.) According to FTA, as of September 2008, all designated recipients of the New Freedom Program were subject to triennial and state management reviews. As a result, FTA determined that spot reviews of designated recipients would not be needed. Therefore, spot review guidance was not necessary. However, FTA will monitor the New Freedom designated recipients to determine whether any entities that are not subject to FTA's oversight reviews become a designated recipient and, if so, FTA will revisit the spot review guidance issue as necessary.

    Recommendation: Based on our findings, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FTA Administrator to develop and implement a plan to oversee the New Freedom program that includes adding program-specific provisions to the triennial and state management reviews and specifying the role and frequency of spot reviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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