Fast Facts

The 2017 hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to public transit facilities in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. In response, the Federal Transit Administration said it would provide $233 million in relief to 52 local transit agencies.

Transit agencies can apply to FTA or the Federal Emergency Management Agency for funding after a disaster. These agencies coordinate their efforts but we found one case in which both agencies approved a small amount of funding for the same expenses.

We recommended ways both agencies can reduce the risk of duplicate funding.

Interior of bus with storm damage

Interior of bus with storm damage

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In response to hurricanes in 2017, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced in May 2018 that it would allocate about $233 million of appropriated emergency relief funds to 52 transit agencies for response, recovery, and rebuilding projects, with most of that funding going to Puerto Rico ($198 million). Most of Puerto Rico's funds, and around half the funds FTA allocated ($116 million), will be distributed to one transit system—Tren Urbano—San Juan's rail-transit service provider (see figure below).

Distribution of Response, Recovery, and Rebuilding Funds for the FTA’s Emergency Relief Program, in Response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria

While FTA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shared information and coordinated efforts, both agencies still approved about $35,000 to one applicant for the same expenses. GAO found that FTA awarded a grant in April 2019 that included expenses for which FEMA had already obligated funds in January 2019. Although FTA contacted FEMA prior to the award to inquire whether the applicant had received FEMA funding, FEMA did not respond within 5 days, and per an agreement between FTA and FEMA, FTA processed the application. After GAO identified the duplicate funding, FTA and FEMA took steps to limit the potential for duplicate funding; FTA, for example, changed its policy of moving applications forward after 5 days if FEMA does not respond. FTA and FEMA officials noted challenges they face in identifying transit expenses in the applications they receive. For example, they may be unaware that a transit agency received FEMA funds if it received those funds through a larger entity such as a city, county, or state government. Although the amount of funding FEMA and FTA approved for the same expenses was relatively small, without addressing these challenges, FTA and FEMA will continue to face the risk that both agencies will approve funding for the same expense in the future.

Why GAO Did This Study

In August and September 2017, Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria made landfall in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to public transit facilities. Access to transit plays an important role in a community's post-disaster recovery. FTA has primary responsibility for providing disaster assistance funding to transit agencies if it receives an appropriation from Congress. If FTA does not receive an appropriation, transit agencies can apply to FEMA for funding.

GAO was asked to evaluate the federal government's response and recovery efforts related to the 2017 hurricanes. This report provides information on FTA's emergency relief allocations and examines FTA's and FEMA's coordination. GAO reviewed FTA's allocation of emergency relief funds; conducted site visits to Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico; obtained survey responses from 44 of 52 transit agencies; and interviewed and reviewed documentation from FTA and FEMA officials.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends that FTA and FEMA identify and develop controls, such as methods to more easily identify transit expenses within larger applications, to address the risk of duplicate funding. The Department of Transportation agreed with the recommendation and noted steps FTA has taken to address it. However, GAO believes FTA would benefit from identifying additional internal controls to address the risk of duplicate funding. The Department of Homeland Security agreed with the recommendation and outlined steps FEMA plans to complete in 2020.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should direct the Administrator of FTA to identify and develop controls, such as methods to more easily identify transit expenses within applications submitted by larger entities, such as a city, county, or state government, to address the risk of duplicate funding. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
In 2019 GAO reported that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shared information and coordinated efforts on funding they provided to transit agencies in response to hurricanes in 2017, but both agencies still approved about $35,000 to one applicant for the same expenses. FEMA is the federal government's primary agency for disaster response. However, because FTA's Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program is focused on public transportation specifically-unlike FEMA's more general program-FTA has primary responsibility for reimbursing emergency response and recovery costs after an emergency or major disaster affects a public transportation system if FTA receives funds for the program in an annual or supplemental appropriation or continuing resolution. GAO found that FTA awarded a grant in April 2019 that included expenses for which FEMA had already obligated funds in January 2019. Agency officials noted challenges they face in identifying transit expenses in the applications they receive, such as when FEMA provides funds to a transit agency through a larger entity such as a city, county, or state government. GAO reported that without addressing these challenges, FTA and FEMA would continue to face the risk that both agencies could approve funding for the same expense in the future. Therefore, GAO recommended that FTA and FEMA identify and develop controls, such as methods to more easily identify transit expenses within applications submitted by larger entities such as a city, county, or state government, to address the risk of duplicate funding. In February 2020, FTA and FEMA collaborated to develop the capacity to flag grants with transit-related expenses within its database, which would enable FEMA to later retrieve information on these grants to share with FTA. Previously, FEMA relied on key word searches of information in its grant applications database to identify grants with transit expenses. This new functionality became effective in March 2020 and, combined with the information sharing and coordination process previously established between FEMA and FTA, enhances the agencies' ability to prevent duplicate funding in the future.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the Administrator of FEMA to identify and develop controls, such as methods to more easily identify transit expenses within applications submitted by larger entities such as a city, county, or state government, to address the risk of duplicate funding. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
In 2019 GAO reported that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) shared information and coordinated efforts on funding they provided to transit agencies in response to hurricanes in 2017, but both agencies still approved about $35,000 to one applicant for the same expenses. FEMA is the federal government's primary agency for disaster response. However, because FTA's Public Transportation Emergency Relief Program is focused on public transportation specifically-unlike FEMA's more general program-FTA has primary responsibility for reimbursing emergency response and recovery costs after an emergency or major disaster affects a public transportation system if FTA receives funds for the program in an annual or supplemental appropriation or continuing resolution. GAO found that FTA awarded a grant in April 2019 that included expenses for which FEMA had already obligated funds in January 2019. Agency officials noted challenges they face in identifying transit expenses in the applications they receive, such as when FEMA provides funds to a transit agency through a larger entity such as a city, county, or state government. GAO reported that without addressing these challenges, FTA and FEMA would continue to face the risk that both agencies could approve funding for the same expense in the future. Therefore, GAO recommended that FTA and FEMA identify and develop controls, such as methods to more easily identify transit expenses within applications submitted by larger entities such as a city, county, or state government, to address the risk of duplicate funding. In February 2020, FTA and FEMA collaborated to develop the capacity to flag grants with transit-related expenses within its database, which would enable FEMA to later retrieve information on these grants to share with FTA. Previously, FEMA relied on key word searches of information in its grant applications database to identify grants with transit expenses. This new functionality became effective in March 2020 and, combined with the information sharing and coordination process previously established between FEMA and FTA, enhances the agencies' ability to prevent duplicate funding in the future.

Full Report

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