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Highlights

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Recovery Act) appropriated $8 billion for high and conventional speed passenger rail. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), within the Department of Transportation (the department), was responsible for soliciting applications, evaluating them to determine program eligibility and technical merits, and selecting awards, which were announced in January 2010. This report examines the extent to which FRA (1) applied its established criteria to select projects, (2) followed recommended practices for awarding discretionary grants, and (3) communicated outcomes to the public, compared with selected other Recovery Act competitive grant programs. To address these topics GAO reviewed federal legislation, FRA documents, and guidance for other competitive grant programs using Recovery Act funds. GAO also analyzed data resulting from the evaluation and selection process and interviewed a cross-section of FRA officials and applicants.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 1. To help ensure accountability over federal funds, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration to create additional records that document the rationales for award decisions in future high speed intercity passenger rail (HSIPR) funding rounds, including substantive reasons (1) why individual projects are selected or not selected and (2) for changes made to requested funding amounts.
Closed - Implemented
In March 2011, we found that the Department of Transportation's (the department) Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) did not sufficiently document its decisions for distributing $8 billion in high speed and intercity passenger rail grants, including rationales for selecting or not selecting projects and how funds were distributed. Specifically, the selection rationales were typically vague and most often restated the criteria listed in the funding announcement generally rather than providing insight into why the department viewed projects as meritorious. The selection rationales also did not provide any information on why other applications were not recommended for selection and only provided general reasons given for adjusting applicants' requested grant funding amounts. Documentation on the rationales for selection decisions is a key part of ensuring accountability and is recommended by the department as well as other federal agencies. Without a detailed record of selection decisions, FRA leaves itself vulnerable to criticism over the integrity of those decisions--an important consideration, given that passenger rail investments have a very public profile. While the department had a financial assistance guidance manual that recommends officials include an explanation of how grant awards were selected, it did not lay out expectations for the level of explanation. Therefore, we recommended that FRA create additional records that document the rationales for award decisions in future grant funding rounds, including substantive reasons (1) why individual projects are selected or not selected and (2) for changes made to requested funding amounts. In November 2012, FRA made enhancements to its financial assistance guidance that includes more explicit requirements for documenting the rationale behind its funding selections. These enhancements specify (1) the process for ensuring a record of selection that includes clear reasons why projects were chosen and explanations for why unselected projects were not funded and (2) reasons for any reductions in funding from the requested amount. Establishing a record that provides insight into why decisions were made enhances the credibility of FRA's awards decisions to the extent that this record confirms that selected projects aligned with established criteria and goals.

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