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DOT criticized for vagueness on $9.5 billion in projects

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GAO criticized Department of Transportation for lack of transparency in its stimulus decisionmaking.

DOT

Billions of dollars handed out to massive transportation projects under the stimulus bill were not vetted with clearly documented rationales, according to the government’s watchdog.

The results of two General Accountability Office studies mirror concerns from a Center story published last year.

The first report from GAO focuses on how the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) gave out $8 billion in funds for high speed rail, which was highly touted by the Obama administration at the time the stimulus was passed. While praising FRA for its open communication, GAO criticized the agency for not providing clear reasons for which projects received funds. According to the report, “GAO could not verify whether [FRA] applied its final selection criteria because the documented rationales for selecting projects were typically vague.” The agency recommended that FRA create a stronger paper trail detailing why projects were picked to receive funding. 

Among the winning projects: a $2.3 billion proposal for passenger rail in California that would let riders travel from Sacramento to San Diego, and another $1.2 billion for rail between the Florida cities of Orlando and Miami.  

GAO’s second report focuses more generally on the process of giving out TIGER grants — the name for any project funded through a $1.5 billion “one shot” grant from the Department of Transportation. While the report praised the TIGER program for generally succeeding, it raised concerns about being unable to explain why certain projects were funded, noting that the department did not document “final decisions and its rationale for selecting recommended projects for half the awards over highly recommended ones.” In some cases, GAO found, notes from the team in charge of reviewing projects were incomplete or never finalized. In others, “highly recommended projects” were not selected to receive funds because of a need for geographic diversity.

“Because no internal documentation from Review Team meetings exists in which final decisions to recommend or reject projects for award were made,” says the report, “DOT cannot definitively demonstrate the basis for its award selections, particularly the reasons why recommended projects were selected for half the awards over highly recommended ones.”

More than 50 projects received TIGER funding, including streetcars in Dallas and Tucson.

Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman John J. Duncan, Jr., R-Tenn., asked why the decisions lacked transparency. “Congress and the American people should not be forced to deduce why some of these projects were funded and others were not.  We should be given a full accounting of how stimulus funds were allocated,” Duncan said in a statement.

Last October the Center published a story entitled “Stimulating Hypocrisy,” which outlined the process known as “lettermarking.”Although the stimulus bill was passed with a ban on earmarks, congressional members still wrote thousands of letters to the various departments requesting that projects in their districts be given heavy consideration for the funds. Experts have said that the lettermarking system is actually less transparent than what would have occurred had lawmakers attached their earmarks to the bill, which would have allowed the public to see who pushed for what project.