WASHINGTON — House Transportation Committee chairman Rep. John Mica on Monday charged the Obama administration failed to justify many of the high-speed rail and so-called TIGER transportation grants it made to state and local governments.

The Republican from Florida, along with subcommittee chairmen John Duncan, R-Tenn., and Bill Shuster, R-Pa., released two new reports by the General Accountability Office that they said highlight the lack of transparency in the administration’s grant selection 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.”

In a report entitled “Recording Clearer Reasons for Awards Decisions Would Improve Otherwise Good Grantmaking Practices,” the GAO said that about 90% of the $8 billion the stimulus law authorized for high-speed rail projects was awarded to develop new or substantially improved passenger rail corridor projects that, in several cases, was expected to deliver rail service reaching speeds of more than 150 miles per hour. The remaining funding generally went to projects focusing on upgrades and improvements to existing rail service of up to 79 miles per hour, the report said.

The GAO concluded that while the Department of Transportation’s Federal Rail Administration “established a fair and objective approach for distributing these funds,” it failed to provide full documentation and establish a record about why some projects were chosen and others were not.  

“By not establishing this record, the FRA invites skepticism about the overall fairness of its decisions, even if they are sound,” the GAO said.

Duncan complained that the “GAO found that the administration’s project selections for $1.5 billion in TIGER [Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery] stimulus grants also lacked transparency, and now the president is asking for $2 billion more. 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.”

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided $48 billion for transportation investments, including $1.5 billion of TIGER discretionary grants to state and local governments, according to the GAO. The grants were designed to fund merit-based projects expected to have a significant impact on the nation or a region or metropolitan area. The program was oversubscribed and in December 2009 Congress appropriated $600 million to DOT for a TIGER II program. DOT announced the TIGER I grants in February 2010 and their successor in October 2010.

In a report called “Competitive Grant Programs Could Benefit from Increased Performance Focus and Better Documentation of Key Decisions,” the GAO applauded DOT for meeting tight deadlines and developing a sounds set of criteria to evaluate the merits of project applications.

The DOT “maintained good documentation of the criteria-based evaluation conducted by the evaluation teams in the technical review and effectively communicated information about its criteria to applicants,” the GAO said.

However, the agency found that there was a lack of documentation regarding its decisions to select recommended rather than highly recommended projects for half of the awards, it said.

DOT officials told the GAO that it would consider its recommendations.

On Monday, Federal Railroad Administration spokeswoman Brie Sachse said: “The department is extremely pleased that GAO’s review of the project selection process concluded that DOT followed good grant making practices in making high-speed rail award decisions. The Federal Railroad Administration worked hard to ensure that the program was both thorough in its evaluation of project merits and fair in its decision making. GAO was particularly complimentary of FRA’s merit based practices for identifying projects and awarding grants and considered FRA to be one of the top-rated agencies in the government for communicating critical information on its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act competitive high-speed rail grant program.”

“We are pleased the GAO report found that the process used to identify and select projects for the $1.5 billion TIGER program was fair and thorough,” said DOT spokeswoman Olivia Alair. “We agree with the GAO that the TIGER program represents an important step toward strategically investing in projects of regional and national significance based on a data-driven, merit-focused competitive basis.

“TIGER — a relatively small element of the DOT’s overall efforts under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — provided the department with the capability to focus funds on meritorious projects across modes of transportation including enabling freight focused projects for ports and freight railroads to participate.”

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