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Government audit confirms that TIGER, rail grants followed merit-based process, despite GOP complaints

Although a Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the Obama administration set and followed a merit based decision-making process for awarding high-speed rail and TIGER grants, several Republican lawmakers claimed the report revealed a lack of transparency and accountability for where the money went.

“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,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, the Florida Republican pictured at right, said in a statement earlier this week.

But as Tanya Snyder at Streetsblog Capitol Hill reported, the discrepancies cited by Republicans are largely the result of the two-step awarding process at the U.S. Department of Transportation. The GAO noted that the review team considered a broader range of criteria, including geographic diversity, than the evaluation team, and thus differing results were not unexpected. Snyder wrote:

GAO doesn’t dispute the validity of those decisions but would have liked to see more thorough documentation of why they chose some of the previously lower-ranked projects over higher ones. Draft minutes of meetings shed some light on the decisions but were never published.

Further, the GAO noted that TIGER was a newly-formed program under the Recovery Act and that USDOT “developed a sound set of criteria to evaluate the merits of applications and select grants that would meet the goals of the program.” The GAO went on the write:

By thoroughly documenting how its technical teams considered and applied the criteria, clearly communicating selection criteria to applicants, and publicly disclosing some information on the attributes of the projects that were selected, DOT took important steps to build the framework for future competitive programs and its institutional capacity to administer them.

The GAO also concluded that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which awarded high-speed rail grants “established a fair and objective approach,” but noted that the “exception is what we view as incomplete documentation of why some applications were chosen and not others, and how FRA decided to distribute the funds at the time those decisions were made.” The FRA later clarified and provided details for most of the GAO’s questions.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood strongly defended the decision-making process, saying the GAO report confirms that “we did everything above-board,” and Streetsblog concluded with:

The GAO reports pointed out room for improvement but were overwhelmingly positive about both the TIGER and high-speed rail programs.

A link to both reports can be found on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee website.

Photo courtesy of the Washington Post.