Highway Emergency Relief:

Federal Highway Administration Should Enhance Accountability over Project Decisions

GAO-20-32: Published: Oct 17, 2019. Publicly Released: Oct 17, 2019.

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Susan Fleming
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FlemingS@gao.gov

 

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After a disaster, states and the federal government share the cost of rebuilding roads and bridges. But the federal government pays for emergency repairs to quickly reopen essential routes.

We found at least 3 projects related to the 2017 hurricanes that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) may have inappropriately classified as emergency repairs. For example, a Texas ferry project received $10 million in emergency funds, but available highways served the same routes immediately after the hurricane.

To ensure future projects are classified appropriately, we recommended FHWA clearly define emergency repairs and document its rationales.

One of the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency repair projects after the 2017 hurricanes was to fix this roadway in Puerto Rico after a landslide caused its collapse.

landslide

landslide

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Susan Fleming
(202) 512-2834
FlemingS@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

GAO found that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) did not document the bases for decisions to classify projects as emergency repairs in 22 of the 25 project files reviewed. Without such documentation, it is not possible to definitively determine the justification for these decisions; GAO identified at least three projects that may have been inappropriately classified. For example, FHWA classified a $10.7 million ferry project in Lynchburg, Texas as an emergency repair to restore essential traffic. Several highways, however, were available immediately following the disaster that service the same locations and result in faster travel times than the ferry. FHWA guidance does not require officials to document decisions to classify projects as emergency repairs or clearly define what constitutes restoration of essential traffic. Designating projects as emergency repairs can increase the federal fiscal exposure in disasters. Had FHWA classified the ferry project as a permanent repair—instead of an emergency repair—the state would have been responsible for paying approximately $2.1 million in matching funds.

Travel Times Using The Lynchburg Ferry and Alternative Routes

U:\Work in Process\VCA_Graphics\FY 19\PI\Malika\102738-PI-mr(Highway Emergency Relief)\Fig03_7-102738_mr.tif

GAO also identified two temporary bridge projects in Puerto Rico classified as emergency repairs even though (1) work did not start within180 days of a disaster, as generally required; (2) the bridges are not to be completed until late 2019 and early 2020; and (3) both are to be replaced by permanent bridges within a couple of years. Out of approximately 1,200 eligible projects in Puerto Rico, FHWA officials reported undertaking 34, including the two bridges GAO identified, after 180 days. Officials also stated they did not document the basis for continuing to classify these projects as emergency repairs. FHWA officials in Puerto Rico stated they were not required to complete repairs within the 180 day limit established in law because Congress exempted Puerto Rico from federal matching share requirements. Further, emergency repair projects are allowed to expedite contracting and environmental procedures. After GAO raised this issue with FHWA, the agency stated that emergency repair projects are only permitted to use these expedited procedures within the first 180 days. While officials stated they plan to update guidance to include this policy, there is no specific timeline for doing so.

In 2017, hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico caused $1 billion in estimated damage. FHWA's Emergency Relief Program provides funding for states to repair or reconstruct federal-aid highways damaged or destroyed by natural disasters, including funding for emergency and permanent repairs. As of September 2019, FHWA has allocated $634 million in federal funds to the two states and Puerto Rico. By statute, emergency repairs are undertaken during or immediately following a disaster to quickly restore essential traffic and minimize further damage. These repairs receive 100 percent federal reimbursement if accomplished within 180 days and may proceed under expedited contracting and environmental procedures.

GAO was asked to evaluate the federal response to the 2017 disasters. This report assesses how FHWA applied program guidance to classify selected emergency relief projects, among other objectives. GAO visited 33 out of approximately 2,500 projects in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico; analyzed 25 emergency repair project files; and interviewed FHWA, state, and local government officials.

What GAO Recommends

FHWA should (1) document decisions to classify projects as emergency repairs and more clearly define what constitutes restoration of essential traffic, and (2) identify a specific timeline for clarifying the policy on when expedited contracting and environmental procedures are permitted. DOT concurred with GAO's recommendations and provided technical comments that GAO incorporated as appropriate.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or FlemingS@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FHWA should require FHWA division offices to document the rationale for classifying projects as emergency repairs, such as a description of why an emergency repair is necessary and which alternative strategies or repairs were considered, and to more clearly define the circumstances under which projects are classified as emergency repairs, including what constitutes restoration of essential traffic. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Highway Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of FHWA should identify a specific timeline for clarifying the policy on the acceptable time frames for accomplishing emergency repair projects undertaken under expedited contracting and environmental requirements, and require FHWA division offices to document the rationale for decisions to extend projects beyond these time frames. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation: Federal Highway Administration

 

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