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Discretionary Transportation Grants: DOT Should Clarify Application Requirements and Oversight Activities

GAO-22-104532 Published: Apr 06, 2022. Publicly Released: Apr 06, 2022.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Transportation has awarded more than $4 billion over 5 years through its Infrastructure for Rebuilding America program. The funding went to 94 nationally significant freight and highway projects. We previously found ways to improve the transparency and consistency of the program's application and award process.

DOT now provides more information on the program's evaluation criteria to help clarify the process. But applicants still don't have enough information to help them make good decisions on whether and how to apply. Our recommendations address this issue and more.

Surface transportation funding is on our High Risk List.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Transportation (DOT) has taken some steps to clarify how it would evaluate applications for Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) grants since the initial round of funding in 2016. In fiscal year 2019, DOT began providing applicants with information in the funding announcement on the specific scores DOT would assign when evaluating applications against merit criteria. In fiscal year 2020, DOT provided information to applicants to clarify how it would assess statutory requirements for large projects (those meeting a specified size threshold). For example, DOT clarified that it would determine a project to be cost-effective if its benefit-cost ratio was greater than or equal to one.

DOT officials stated that these clarifications were intended to reduce the number of resource-intensive follow-up actions to obtain additional information from applicants. However, GAO found that DOT's efforts did not reduce the number of follow-up activities (see figure). DOT has not systematically analyzed all available application and follow-up information to determine how to better clarify application requirements for large projects. Instead DOT has relied on staff discussions and other observations to guide funding announcement clarifications. Without such an analysis, DOT may be unable to achieve its intended goal of reducing follow-up activities.

Department of Transportation's Outreach to Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) Large Project Applications Considered for Award, Fiscal Years 2016–2020

Department of Transportation's Outreach to Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) Large Project Applications Considered for Award, Fiscal Years 2016–2020

Note: DOT awarded fiscal year 2017 funds to large projects under a joint Notice of Funding Opportunity with the fiscal year 2018 funds, so these projects are included in 2018.

DOT's quality control and oversight activities for the INFRA program did not consistently detect or correct inaccurate or incomplete application evaluations. According to DOT's INFRA evaluation plan, an internal quality control team is responsible for reviewing applications to ensure consistency and high-quality documentation reviews, and for ensuring that grant application evaluations are completed in accordance with INFRA guidelines. However, GAO identified errors in DOT's evaluation documentation. For example, seven of the 40 projects (18 percent) that DOT awarded in 2019 and 2020 had inaccurate or incomplete evaluations. DOT did not detect or correct these errors because it does not provide direction on how it will conduct oversight activities, including ensuring accurate and complete evaluation documentation. Without such an approach, DOT may continue to risk awarding some projects that have inaccurate evaluations.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2007, GAO placed funding for surface transportation programs on the High Risk list. The INFRA program—a DOT discretionary grant program—was established by statute to fund nationally significant freight and highway projects. Since 2016, DOT has awarded more than $4 billion to 94 transportation projects across the country.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act included a provision for GAO to review DOT's process for evaluating and selecting INFRA projects for award. This report examines, among other things, the extent to which DOT has: (1) taken steps to clarify to applicants how it will evaluate INFRA grant applications and (2) provided oversight for the INFRA grant application review process and ensured that application evaluations were accurate and complete. GAO reviewed documentation of the INFRA evaluation process, analyzed fiscal year 2019 and 2020 application and award data, and interviewed DOT officials and program applicants.

Recommendations

GAO is recommending that DOT: (1) systematically analyze applicants' information to determine how to clarify large project requirements and (2) provide direction on how oversight activities will be conducted and designed to detect and correct evaluation errors and ensure accurate documentation. DOT concurred with GAO's recommendations and provided technical comments, which GAO incorporated as appropriate.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should ensure that INFRA officials systematically analyze available quantitative data and qualitative information from applicants and use the results of that analysis to determine how to clarify the large project requirements in the NOFO. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In February 2024, DOT officials stated that they have begun systematically analyzing INFRA applicant information and plan to potentially complete this analysis by April 30, 2024. DOT officials also stated that they plan to incorporate relevant findings from this analysis into future NOFOs or other applicant guidance. We will continue to monitor DOT's efforts to implement this recommendation.
Department of Transportation The Secretary of Transportation should ensure that INFRA officials provide direction on how oversight activities are to be conducted during the application review process and that such activities are designed to routinely detect and correct evaluation errors and verify that evaluation documentation is complete. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
In January 2024, we reported on DOT's process to evaluate INFRA applications and award grants for fiscal year 2022. As part of its evaluation process, DOT developed instructions for its Quality Control Team members to review the consistency of the evaluation ratings and accompanying narratives. These instructions directed reviewers to verify that the narrative justification matched the assigned rating, and that the justification was consistent with the outcome being evaluated. We reported that the Quality Control team identified and corrected evaluation errors, including incomplete documentation. While we did identify some additional errors and omissions that were not addressed by DOT's Quality Control Team, DOT has improved its approach to ensuring the accuracy and completeness of its application review process compared to findings from our review of the FY 2019 and FY 2020 awards. We will continue to monitor DOT's efforts to implement this recommendation and verify DOT's process routinely detects and corrects evaluation errors, including verifying documentation is complete.

Full Report

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ConstructionFederal awardsFederal fundsFinancial assistanceGrant applicationsGrant awardsGrant monitoringGrant programsHighway projectsPublic roads or highwaysSurface transportationTransportation