Transportation Infrastructure:

FHWA Should Assess and Compare the Benefits of Projects When Awarding Discretionary Grants

RCED-99-263: Published: Sep 24, 1999. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Federal Highway Administration's (FHwA) selection process for awarding discretionary grants, focusing on: (1) determining how FHwA has implemented the requirements specified in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21); and (2) comparing the results of the selection process for fiscal years (FY) 1998-1999 with the results of the selection process for FY 1995 through FY 1997 that GAO previously reported on.

GAO noted that: (1) FHwA has only partially implemented the requirements in TEA-21; (2) FHwA developed and published criteria for selecting projects in 1998 and reported its selections to the House and Senate authorizing committees in 1999; (3) however, with the exception of the Discretionary Bridge Program, FHwA staff do not evaluate or suggest projects on the basis of a comparative analysis of the projects' transportation benefits; (4) GAO's analysis of the process indicates that FHwA staff primarily suggested projects based on their location to ensure an equitable and geographic distribution of funds to the states; (5) FHwA officials asserted that it would not be feasible to compare the benefits of the projects when making selections, especially in the Public Lands Highways and Ferry Boats and Facilities programs, because each project has unique and, therefore, incomparable characteristics; (6) however, this assertion is inconsistent with other FHwA programs that compare and assess the transportation benefits of a wide array of discretionary projects; (7) during the funding cycle for FY 1998 through FY 1999, 98 percent of the projects that the Office of the Administrator selected were projects that the staff had suggested for funding; (8) this contrasts with the selection results in FY 1995 through FY 1997, when the Office of the Administrator selected as little as 59 percent of projects that staff considered promising and most promising; (9) GAO's analysis of the funding results by congressional district for the funding cycle in fiscal years 1998-1999 found that FHwA awarded a slightly disproportionate amount of Public Lands Highways Program funds to projects located in districts with Republican representation; (10) according to FHwA officials, the anomaly in the Public Lands Highways Program is primarily due to statutory direction that the Secretary give preference to projects in states with at least 3 percent of the nation's public lands, that is, western states that have predominately Republican congressional districts; and (11) this result is different from GAO's analysis of that program for FY 1995 through FY 1997, when FHwA awarded a significantly disproportionate amount of funds to projects in districts with Democratic representation.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In November 1999, DOT submitted its 60-day letter to OMB and the Congress indicating that it agreed with GAO's recommendation and that current FHWA procedures already address the recommendation. The agency's position is the same as it was during the time of GAO's review. During its review, GAO determined that FHWA's procedures did not assess the relative merits of discretionary transportation projects. In the report, GAO clearly indicated that FHWA's process was not sufficient for identifying and funding the most meritorious transportation projects. The agencies response shows no indication that it plans to make substantive changes to its process for awarding discretionary grants in response to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given that states' requests for federal discretionary funding greatly exceed available funds, a grant process that measures, compares, and assesses the transportation benefits of projects would help ensure that FHwA funds projects with the greatest transportation benefits. Accordingly, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator, FHwA, to develop the necessary process and criteria to measure, compare, and assess the transportation benefits of projects before making grant selections as outlined in Executive Order 12893 and emphasized in TEA-21. As a starting point, FHwA should examine the process used by its own Discretionary Bridge Program office as well as other operating administrations within the Department of Transportation to learn how they developed their processes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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