Audit Finds U.S. DOT’s Transit Record-Keeping ‘Unreliable,’ ‘Inaccurate’

The disjointed state of "New Starts," the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) program to fund new rail and bus lines, is well-known
on the Hill — in fact, House transportation committee chairman Jim
Oberstar (D-MN) recently quipped that it ought to be renamed "small
starts, low starts, and no starts."

cha_lrt_elev_crowd_20071124_Todd_Sumlin_cha_obs.jpgThousands gathered to board the new light rail line in Charlotte in 2007. (Photo: Light Rail Now)

With
Oberstar’s six-year transportation re-write bill in limbo for the
moment, however, there appears to be scant political urgency to fix the
program. But a report released today by the non-partisan Government
Accountability Office (GAO) could help change that picture.

It can take as long as 14 years for transit planners to secure
a full-funding New Starts grant agreement (FFGA), the final stage
required before starting construction.

Yet when GAO auditors
set out to break the process down by its stages (which are depicted in
a comically complex chart after the jump) they found the FTA could only
provide complete information for 9 out of 40 New Starts projects
approved since 1997.

"We were unable to obtain complete
and reliable project milestone data from FTA," GAO auditors wrote. An
attempt to confirm records for a random sample of 10 New Starts
projects found the information to be "unreliable and, in some cases,
inaccurate."

The GAO report then outlined the FTA’s explanation for its inconsistent data:

First,
FTA told us that it does not have records on when a project begins
alternatives analysis because this phase is conducted at the local
level, generally without FTA involvement. Second, FTA told us that it
does not record when a project sponsor submits an application for
preliminary engineering, final design, and FFGA because project
sponsors almost never submit complete applications.

The
bureaucratic hurdles that transit planners must clear to win federal
aid stand in stark contrast to road projects’ usually unobstructed path
to approval. But without solid data to make the case for fixing New
Starts, transit advocates’ already arduous political fight for fairer
treatment is likely to get even harder.

The GAO report can be downloaded in full here.

d09784_0009.jpg(Photo: GAO)

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