IG: Transportation has hands full tracking stimulus funds

The attention required to distribute the funds quickly while providing significant oversight will force DOT to limit its focus on transportation safety issues, Calvin Scovel told Congress.

DOT also faces challenges in maintaining funding for its traditional missions as Congress works on reauthorization legislation for surface transportation and aviation programs, said Katherine Siggerud, managing director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office. Taxes and fees that support the trust funds for highway and air transportation have declined, said Siggerud, who also .

The Transportation Department has established a special team to oversee the $48 billion it is slated to receive under the economic stimulus law, said Calvin Scovel, DOT’s inspector general.

The Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery team would make sure that the department provides accountability and transparency for the massive amount of additional funding authorized by the law, Scovel said in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee's Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee today.

However, dealing with that large infusion of money, which must be distributed quickly and with the limited staff resources available, will force the department to limit its focus on its mission of transportation safety, Scovel said.

DOT must balance the quick distribution of funds to create jobs with significant oversight of that money and the $70 billion the department spends annually on safety and mobility projects, he said. The stimulus funds would flow through existing DOT program spending, most of which is channeled to the states in the form of grants, he added.

“The staff is limited from before, and they are being asked to do much, much more,” Scovel said. “We worry that with the attention to some degree on recovery, we may lose some sight on important matters, such as safety. The department has to keep its eye on safety.”

DOT agencies are modifying financial management systems to track recovery funding and report on results, including the number of jobs created, as part of an effort to ensure accountability, effectiveness and efficiency in federal funding for all transportation projects, Scovel said.

DOT is also working with potential grantees so they can quickly submit proposals and is posting answers to grantees’ frequently asked questions about procurement and other issues on Web sites dedicated to the stimulus process. DOT also plans to establish a dedicated e-mail address for grantees seeking help with specific issues, Scovel said.

“The timeline is already running,” he said. “The department is working flat out to get [the stimulus funds] out.”

Scovel said the department still needs to:

  • Build an effective and experienced acquisition workforce to meet the increased workload and accelerated time frames of the stimulus law.
  • Establish contracting mechanisms and financial practices to make sound decisions quickly and avoid wasteful spending.
  • Reform mechanisms to combat fraud, waste and abuse in an environment of increased funding to state and local agencies, such as using financial management systems to track and publicly report recovery spending.
  • Develop comprehensive oversight of highway and transit investments.
testified at the hearing

The department must link its performance goals or outcomes with funding to make sure that the money supports the most critical transportation needs, she said. However, DOT lacks adequate data to assess outcomes or implement performance measures, she said, adding that the department does not have a central source for data on traffic congestion, even though it has identified the issue as a top priority.

However, DOT’s Federal Aviation Administration has taken important steps to reduce weaknesses in its air traffic control modernization program. It has improved system management capabilities and continues to develop an enterprise architecture and a comprehensive management process. As a result, GAO removed FAA’s program from its high-risk list in January, Siggerud said.

“We will closely monitor FAA’s efforts because the modernization program is still technically complex and costly, and FAA needs to place a high priority on efficient and effective management,” she added.

As FAA migrates to its Next Generation Air Transportation System, it will need to accelerate the implementation of new and existing technologies, consider incentives for aircraft operators to acquire those technologies and maintain the current system while transitioning to the new one, she said.