Fast Facts

Without sufficient investment, transit agencies' buses, rail cars, and other capital assets can become increasingly unreliable and hard to maintain. The Federal Transit Administration provides financial and technical assistance to help agencies manage assets.

Transit agencies that receive federal funds also must participate in FTA's Transit Asset Management program, which requires them to inventory assets, assess their condition, prioritize a list of investments, and more. Overall, agencies told us this effort yielded few improvements, but larger agencies noted more benefits.

Our recommendations are to help FTA make this program more effective.

Silver colored passenger train on train tracks.

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What GAO Found

The Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) Transit Asset Management (TAM) program requires transit agencies receiving federal assistance to develop plans to manage their assets and meet other requirements. According to generalizable results from GAO's survey of urban transit agencies, most agencies made few changes or limited improvements to their existing procedures for inventorying or assessing the condition of assets to incorporate TAM requirements. TAM requirements also include reporting performance targets for four types of assets: rolling stock (like buses); equipment; facilities; and, for rail agencies, guideway infrastructure (like track). Transit agencies GAO surveyed found performance targets for most, but not all, assets to be useful for capital planning (see figure).

Urban Transit Agencies' Views on Performance Targets (Estimated Percentages)


Notes: Combined data for each asset category may not equal 100 percent as “do not know” responses are excluded. Estimates in this figure have a margin of error of +/- 10 percentage points or fewer, at the 95 percent confidence level.

Nonetheless, the targets for the four asset categories are based on performance measures that do not fully assess state of good repair, as defined by FTA standards, or cover all key performance dimensions contrary to leading practices GAO identified in prior work. For example, FTA's measures do not fully address whether an asset poses an unacceptable safety risk, one of FTA's standards. FTA has not reported this and other limitations of its TAM performance data. As a result, stakeholders may draw inaccurate conclusions on the condition of the nation's transit assets, potentially affecting policy decisions.

FTA's TAM requirements may not prepare transit agencies to manage transit assets over their life cycles. For example, contrary to FTA-sponsored research on leading transit asset management practices, FTA does not require transit agencies to develop investment scenarios, which hypothesize the effects of different funding levels on transit assets. While FTA officials told GAO they made this decision to minimize the burden on smaller agencies, leading practices provide tools for any size agency to adapt scenarios to its needs. FTA officials said that addressing GAO's findings and others that may result from FTA's own reviews of the TAM program would require a program rule change, which is a lengthy and costly process. Leading program management practices emphasize the importance of identifying areas for improvement and proactively planning for change. Such planning may be even more important when change requires a lengthy process; but FTA does not have such a plan. Having a plan to manage future improvements to the TAM program could help ensure intended program benefits are realized.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2019, the Department of Transportation (DOT) reported a $98 billion national backlog in deferred reinvestment needs for transit assets in 2014, affecting the quality of transit services. Transit asset management can help agencies make investment decisions that improve asset performance and reduce life cycle costs. In 2016, FTA issued a final rule for its TAM program that required transit agencies to develop TAM plans and report on their assets.

GAO was asked to review FTA's implementation of the TAM program. This report examines the extent to which: (1) transit agencies reported improvements as a result of the TAM program; (2) FTA established performance measures to assess asset condition and reported information on those measures; and (3) TAM requirements prepare transit agencies to manage assets over their life cycles. GAO conducted a generalizable web survey of officials representing urban transit agencies; reviewed FTA documents; evaluated the TAM program against leading practices for performance measures, program management, and transit asset management; and interviewed FTA officials.

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GAO is making recommendations that FTA: (1) include the known limitations of TAM performance data in public reports, and (2) develop a plan to manage any future improvements to the TAM program. DOT concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Transit Administration 1. The FTA Administrator should include the known limitations and intended uses of its TAM performance data in its public reports such as its annual NTD summary and other reports for decision-makers. This action should include clarifying the context of state of good repair data in TAM reports in relation to similar data in DOT's <i>Condition and Performance Report</i> and how they differ. (Recommendation 1)
As of March 2021, FTA officials reported to GAO that they will include the known limitations and intended use of TAM performance data in its public reports and establish standard operating procedures for including this clarifying language in all future publications that include TAM performance data. The officials stated that in establishing these procedures, FTA will identify public reports that contain TAM performance data, and include the clarifying language in relevant documents published before the standard operating procedures are finalized. FTA stated that it will finalize and begin implementing the procedures by June 30, 2021. GAO will continue to monitor FTA's progress in implementing this recommendation.
Federal Transit Administration 2. The FTA Administrator should develop a plan for how FTA intends to analyze, implement, and communicate any identified TAM program improvements moving forward. The plan should describe how FTA intends to address:<br><br> &#149; relying on a single performance measure per asset category,<br><br> &#149; potential limited use of investment scenarios by transit agencies in making asset decisions, and<br><br> &#149; shorter-term planning horizons than those used by other planning counterparts. (Recommendation 2)
As of March 2021, FTA officials reported that FTA will develop a plan to analyze, implement, and communicate future improvements to the TAM program by December 31, 2021. According to the officials, the plan will focus on the specific areas in the GAO report: (1) support for agencies on additional performance measures, (2) implementation of investment scenarios, and (3) developing long-term planning horizons. The officials also stated that FTA's plan will focus on analyzing, implementing and communicating technical assistance opportunities to agencies to further address these issues. GAO will continue to follow FTA's progress in addressing this recommendation.

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