GAO: FTA should clarify its review methods and criteria for the CIG program

July 17, 2020
A report from the Government Accountability Office offered three recommendations FTA should implement to improve it’s CIG program review process.

The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) should clarify and better communicate the factors used to evaluate, rate and recommend projects in its Capital Investment Grants (CIG) program, according to a report released July 16 by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).  

The GAO report offers FTA three recommendations following reviews of previous reports and discussions with FTA and the sponsors of the 66 projects currently in the CIG program.

As the GAO report explains, the CIG program is a significant source of federal financial assistance used by transit agencies across the United States to build new transit systems or extend existing service. FTA’s role in the program, which is allocated approximately $2.6 billion annually, is to evaluate and rate projects based on statutory criteria and make recommendations to Congress.

GAO found through discussion with project sponsors that most of the 66 projects currently in the CIG program experienced delays moving through at least one aspect of the program’s development process. The reasons for these delays were frequently found to be factors unique to each project or local in nature, such as challenges completing agreements with local utility companies or other rail operators.

GAO reports FTA says it takes steps to aid in sponsors understanding of the agency’s review processes and the factors that impact FTA’s reviews. GAO found that some sponsors reported aspects of FTA's reviews confusing or expected FTA to take action sooner than may be reasonable.

GAO had previously identified practices federal agencies should follow to help ensure the effectiveness and transparency of reviews and found FTA's policies and practices for the CIG program did not fully align with three of those recommended practices. The practices with which FTA's policies and actions do not fully align include:

Using a standards-based approach that includes clearly specifying the methods an agency uses and the factors it considers when performing its reviews. GAO found that FTA provides sponsors with information that describes how it administers the CIG program and performs its reviews. However, based on GAOs' review of FTA documentation and interviews with sponsors, FTA does not always provide sponsors with information that clearly describes some of its methods, such as how it uses documents to help sponsors advance through the development process, or the timeframes for FTA's review and response to sponsors.

Documenting review processes and results that includes communicating the results of agency decisions in a timely manner. GAO found that FTA documents its reviews but, according to several sponsors, did not always communicate decisions to sponsors in a timely manner, taking weeks, months, or longer. Some sponsors also told GAO that they thought FTA was sometimes reluctant to communicate certain decisions, such as the reason why their project was not advancing, to them in writing.

Incorporating public involvement to help position agencies to be better prepared to address issues that might affect their reviews. GAO found that FTA's current approach to incorporating public involvement largely relies on informal mechanisms, such as meeting with sponsors at industry conferences and workshops, and that FTA has used a more formal mechanism in the past to solicit public comment. While FTA's approach has benefits, some sponsors told GAO that the frequency of meetings has varied over the years or that there were limitations with FTA's approach as not all sponsors attend those meetings.

The report includes three recommendations to FTA that it believes will improve the effectiveness and transparency of reviews of the projects in the CIG program.

The recommendations are:

  1. Clarify aspects of the methods it uses and factors it considers when reviewing projects;
  2. Review agency guidance to identify aspects that may be outdated or confusing and
  3. Communicate information, such as the reason why a project is not advancing, to sponsors in a timely manner.

In response to the report, FTA noted “there are opportunities to enhance projects sponsors’ awareness of CIG program requirements and timelines.” FTA concurred with FTA’s second recommendation but said it does not concur with the first or third.

FTA says GAO did not “adequately consider the current statutory constraints under which the program must operate” or acknowledge the existing CIG guidance’s effectiveness. FTA said it provides “ample information to Congress and sponsors regarding how FTA applies the methods and factors it considers when performing its review of projects.” Additional guidance would not be feasible, according to FTA, due to many approval steps being unique to a project.

Regarding the third recommendation, FTA explained it already takes this step and will continue to do so.

About the Author

Mischa Wanek-Libman | Group Editorial Director

Mischa Wanek-Libman serves as editor in chief of Mass Transit magazine and group editorial director of the Infrastructure and Aviation Group at Endeavor Business Media. She is responsible for developing and maintaining the editorial direction of the group and is based in the western suburbs of Chicago.

Wanek-Libman has spent more than 20 years covering transportation issues including construction projects and engineering challenges for various commuter railroads and transit agencies. She has been recognized for editorial excellence through her individual work, as well as for collaborative content. 

She is an active member of the American Public Transportation Association's Marketing and Communications Committee and serves as a Board Observer on the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association (NRC) Board of Directors.  

She is a graduate of Drake University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication with a major in magazine journalism and a minor in business management.