House Republicans urge greater transparency in transportation spending

“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," he said.

"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.”

Although GAO found that the federal agencies followed proper procedures in determining grant recipients and provided additional reports about their selections during the review, the independent agency suggested that more detailed reports can help Congress and potential recipients determine if money should be spent on programs and what's needed to apply. 

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,” the report said. 

According to the GAO report, FRA applied its established criteria to determine eligibility and assess applications’ technical merit, "however, its rationales for selecting projects were typically too general to determine how it applied the additional selection criteria." 

"When asked for more information on certain applications, FRA provided specific reasons for its selection decisions, but, in our opinion, creating a detailed, comprehensive record alongside the final selections is preferable," the report said. 

Still, the GAO report determined that FRA "substantially" followed six recommended practices used across the federal government to ensure a fair and objective evaluation and selection of discretionary grant awards, "including communicating key information to applicants, planning for the competition, using a technical merit review panel with desirable characteristics, assessing applicants’ ability to account for funds and notifying applicants of awards decisions."

FRA "partially met" one recommended practice, documenting the rationale for funding decisions. 

"We believe it would have been beneficial to provide more detail about the rationales for these decisions," the GAO report said. The report suggested that "creating a sufficiently detailed record has increased relevance in high-stakes, high-profile decisions, such as the intercity passenger rail awards competition."

FRA selected 62 applications from 23 states and the District of Columbia for the $8 billion in stimulus funds.

The decision-making documentation for the $1.5 billion in TIGER grants also received criticism and suggestions from the GAO and lawmakers. 

"GAO found that the administration’s project selections for $1.5 billion in TIGER stimulus grants also lacked transparency, and now the president is asking for $2 billion more," Duncan said. "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.”

GAO noted that the process for determining TIGER grants represented a shift from formula-based funding to competitive grants, and "DOT officials also told us they recognize that they will need to make the process more transparent."

“We are under considerable budgetary pressure to cut spending and do more with fewer federal dollars," Shuster said. 

For instance, officials reported to GAO they are exploring plans to increase TIGER II's level of communication with the public by providing a summary abstract for each application that describes the project and its strengths, and also indicates the rationale for why it was selected or not selected, which they say would increase transparency.  

But DoT officials have expressed concern that public disclosure of considerations or opinions, whether favorable or unfavorable, could "hamper deliberation in future discretionary grant selection processes."

Yet the program's popularity — there were nearly 1,500 applications — calls for release of a greater amount of information to the public, and "disclosing additional information would give Congress a better basis to assess the merits of this new approach and the information it needs to judge whether and how to continue with it," the GAO report said. 

"Developing a strategy, in consultation with the Congress, to disclose additional information publicly would also help build confidence in DOT’s institutional ability to expertly administer a department-wide, competitive program," the report said. 

Transit, rail and highway projects received the majority of the funding — 36 of the 51 total projects worth about $1.5 billion.