A report issued last week by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that the Federal Railroad Administration needs to develop more clear guidelines and set better priorities when handing out funding for the High-Speed Intercity Passenger Rail Program (HSIPR).
The report, "FRA's Requirements for High Speed Rail Stakeholder Agreements Mitigated Risk, but Delayed Some Projects' Benefits," examines how FRA handled about $8 million in funding from 2009's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to two separate types of HSIPR projects—short-term (those projects ready to begin immediately or soon) and long-term (those projects that improve a corridor).
OIG reviewed FRA's guidance and requirements for the HSIPR program, finding that while it is a major positive to require long-term project agreements, the guidelines are incomplete. This then leads to major delays that threaten the future of the projects, while also causing unnecessary confusion. OIG also states in the report that FRA needs to do a better job prioritizing projects.
"FRA took an important step to mitigate risk by requiring stakeholder service outcome agreements for long-term HSIPR projects before fund obligation. However, the lack of clear FRA guidance on structuring the agreements has required the agency to be more involved in negotiating them, resulting in a more challenging and time-consuming process," the report states. "Still, most long-term project grantees lack the maintenance and construction agreements required to receive their funds and start work, but the FRA obligated funds to them nonetheless. If these projects' agreements continue to be delayed, funds obligated to them will sit idle instead of being made available for projects that have completed agreements and have a greater likelihood of success, which threatens the long-term goals of the HSIPR program."
OIG made two specific recommendations to the FRA. The first recommendation was for FRA to require that all state grantees submit all required stakeholder agreements that address all terms specified by PRIIA and FRA's Guidance prior to the obligation of any funds. FRA responded to this recommendation, stating that it agreed in part, but while FRA agrees requirements need to be specific and clear for oversight, some level of flexibility must be maintained to allow projects to succeed.
The second recommendation was to develop guidance on both short- and long-term projects that addresses the differences in the projects' scopes to make sure the intended benefits of each project can be achieved. FRA agreed with this recommendation.