Discretionary Transportation Grants: DOT Should Clarify Application Requirements and Oversight Activities
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.
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
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.
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
|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)||
In August 2022, DOT officials stated that they plan to conduct a systematic analysis of the information provided to the Department by INFRA applicants after the award of the FY 2022 grant funding. DOT plans to complete this analysis by June 30, 2023. 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)||
In August 2022, DOT officials stated that they revised the program's evaluation guidelines to allocate additional staff to the team overseeing the evaluation and selection process for the FY 2022 applications. According to DOT officials, the team will review evaluation ratings and justifications to ensure consistency with the evaluation guidelines and across applications. We will continue to monitor DOT's efforts to implement this recommendation.