November 7, 2017 5:45 PM, EST

Congressional Watchdog Faults DOT FASTLANE Grant Selection Process

Four Representatives Cite Lack of Transparency in Process

U.S. House transportation leaders have requested that a congressional watchdog agency be permitted to continue oversight of a five-year Department of Transportation grant program for significant highway, bridge and freight projects after investigators concluded that it lacked transparency in how it selected 18 projects totaling $759 million in 2016.

The Government Accountability Office report, published Nov. 2, concluded that for the first round of the $4.5 billion FASTLANE discretionary grant program, investigators were unable to “determine the rationale for selecting the 18 awarded projects.”

“Without complete documentation of the decision-making, the transparency of the application review and selection process is limited,” the GAO report said.

FASTLANE stands for Fostering Advancement in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies.

The contract awards ranged from a $165 million urban project “unlocking” the I-95 corridor in Richmond, Va., to a $5 million extension and grade separation project in Tukwila, Wash., the report said.

“Funding for highways and freight projects is highly competitive as demonstrated by the over 200 applications submitted to the FASTLANE program,” the GAO said. “Accordingly, it is critical that the application review and selection process be consistent and transparent.”

In a response letter to GAO, DOT said it concurred with the report and that it has begun an evaluation plan that will ensure the “adequacy and fairness of the selection plan.”

The watchdog agency said the review team’s documentation of the 218 applications competing for the funding afforded limited insight into why the 18 awarded projects were selected over other projects on the list, which was narrowed down to 130 projects and forwarded to then Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who made the final decision.

Ultimately, the secretary chose 18 projects for awards. But GAO said there was limited documentation of the rationale for the decision-making in the review, and it was not clear why some projects were selected over others.

“There is obviously high interest in these discretionary programs, as there was with the TIGER program,” Susan Fleming, GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, told Transport Topics. “There’s a lot of folks interested in putting forward a project, and there’s always a limited pot of funds and number of projects that can receive awards.”

DOT’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grants program has yet to announce the latest round of fiscal 2017 awards for up to $500 million for projects that DOT said will focus on connectivity concerns across rural landscapes and underdeveloped regions, as well as projects that aim to enhance economic growth and competitiveness.

Concerning the FASTLANE grants, Flemming added, “It’s really important that the process be transparent and that folks have a sense of the process, why they weren’t selected, what they need to do, and to make sure that the documentation is fair so that there really is a decision-making rationale for selecting certain projects over others to make sure the process is also consistent.”

It’s critical that DOT carry out this program as Congress intended and that the grants be evaluated and selected in a fair and transparent manner, four House leaders said in a joint statement.

“There needs to be more clarity in this process in the future, and we have requested GAO’s continued assessment of the program to help ensure that happens,” the statement said.

The four representatives issuing the statement included Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Highways and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Sam Graves (R-Mo.), and Highways and Transit Subcommittee ranking member Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia).

First known as the FASTLANE program under the Obama administration, the grant program has since been renamed the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America or INFRA program by the Trump administration.

The four congressional leaders asked the U.S. Comptroller’s Office to extend GAO oversight of the program because it was only authorized to monitor the first year.

GAO also found that the grant selection process did not fully adhere to DOT’s guidance.

“Many applicants told us they didn’t know until they looked at the list when it was announced,” said Fleming, who headed the GAO team doing the report. “They didn’t know why they weren’t selected and that if they wanted to apply again they needed that information.

“That’s why we said for the unsuccessful ones just give them a brief explanation, give them a sense of why they weren’t selected and what they needed to do.”