Reports question how Obama administration selected projects for TIGER grants

Government Accountability Office finds that half of chosen 51 projects received ratings lower than “highly recommended”

News Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure April 11, 2011
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Two independent government reports found that the Obama administration failed to clearly justify its selections for so-called high-speed and passenger rail grants and TIGER transportation grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Two separate reports by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighting the lack of transparency in the Administration’s grant-selection process were released April 11. Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.), Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman John Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.) and Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) have called for more transparency in the Administration’s grant-making process.

“The rationale for the Administration’s awards of billions of dollars under a failed high-speed rail program remains shrouded in mystery,” Mica said. “In the name of high-speed rail, the Administration has squandered limited resources on dozens of slow-speed rail projects across the country and simply provided more funding for modest Amtrak upgrades. Although we can develop cost-effective high-speed rail transportation in this country, I cannot imagine a worse beginning to a U.S. high-speed rail effort. Billions of dollars in rejected grants have been returned by recipient states, and it is critical that there be transparency for why these projects were selected in the first place and why any future projects will be selected.”

The GAO reports both found that there is insufficient documentation on the U.S. DOT and the Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) selection of rail projects for $8 billion in stimulus funding and $1.5 billion in Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants.

According to the GAO, DOT and FRA applied their criteria during the first rounds of the project process, but the documented rationales were typically so vague that GAO could not verify whether the criteria were applied in final project selection. According to GAO’s report on rail projects, “Decision rationales provided little insight into selections.” The TIGER report echoed a similar concern.

According to the GAO report on TIGER grants, the lack of documentation “can give rise to challenges to the integrity of the decisions DOT made and subject it to criticism that projects were selected for reasons other than merit.” GAO found that 115 TIGER project applications were rated by DOT as “highly recommended,” but half of the 51 projects ultimately selected by the Transportation Secretary for grants received a rating lower than “highly recommended.” In addition, GAO’s investigation found that the U.S. DOT did not document the reasons for selecting lower-rated projects over “highly recommended” projects and did not document meetings in which final decisions to award grants were made.

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