Friday, March 4, 2011

Coordination of Transportation Services Gets GAO Spotlight

Most of the time, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) is a quiet watchdog, helping Congress examine the effectiveness of federal programs and activities, and working hard to ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. This past week, though, GAO sailed out into the media limelight, with an attention-getting government-wide examination of duplication in federal government programs.

This 345-page report, entitled Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue, received coverage from all corners of the media spectrum, including National Public Radio, the Washington Post, Fox News Channel and many other news outlets. Following the report's publication, the Comptroller General, Gene Dodaro, gave testimony on the GAO findings at a March 3, 2011, hearing convened by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

As we state on the front page of the National Resource Center for Human Service Transportation Coordination's (NRC) web site,, coordination between transportation and human services is "good practice, good policy." That same thinking permeates this GAO report. In numerous points throughout the report, GAO highlights opportunities for the federal government and its programs to function more effectively through several aspects of streamlining and interagency or intergovernmental coordination. Here are just a few highlights that pertain to coordination between transportation and human services:

1. Citing a 2009 NRC report, GAO recommends that the eleven federal departments and agencies comprising the interagency Coordinating Council on Access and Mobility (CCAM) "should identify and assess their transportation programs and related expenditures and work with other departments to identify potential opportunities for additional coordination such as the use of one-call centers, transportation brokerages, or shared resources, among other options.... [and] should develop the means for collecting and sharing this information by establishing agency roles and responsibilities and developing a strategy to reinforce cooperation."

2. In another recommendation regarding coordination between transportation and human services, GAO states "Federal departments also have more work to do in developing and disseminating policies and grantee guidance for coordinating transportation services. This is important because state and local grantees typically look to their administrating departments for guidance on issues such as coordination."

3. Picking up a point that has been raised by the NRC in 2009, and in a special CCAM Report to the President in 2005, GAO observes that "progress has been made in coordination efforts, particularly at the state and local level. However, to assure that coordination benefits are realized, Congress may want to consider requiring key programs to participate in coordinated planning."

The above points, and related comments, such as GAO's current estimation that there may be 80 federal programs whose funds may be used in some way to provide transportation services to "transportation disadvantaged" populations, but for which there continue to be no reliable data on the precise number of such programs, nor the nature or extent of how these programs' expenses are used on transportation, all can be found on pages numbered 134 through 139 of the GAO report (if reading on line, note that these are the 139th through 144th pages of text in the PDF version of the document).

Some other GAO findings and recommendations that pertain to the coordination of transportation and human services include:

  • Using the overdue reauthorization of SAFETEA-LU as a vehicle to overcome the growing fragmentation of federal surface transportation programs. GAO had looked at one small part of this fragmentation in 2009, recommending that "consolidating the application processes for three federal transit programs that provide funding for transportation-disadvantaged populations [i.e., the FTA Job Access, New Freedom, and Section 5310 programs] could reduce the administrative burden for states and transit agencies applying for these funds."
  • Improving collaboration among the economic development programs administered by USDA, HUD, the Small Business Administration, and the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration.
  • Promoting streamlining, instead of duplication, among the various safety and security systems for transit and trucking that have been established by the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
  • Reducing the programmatic inconsistencies between USDA's various food and nutrition programs.
  • Taking steps to better coordinate the many programs that provide services and assistance to homeless persons.
  • Co-locating federally funded job training programs and consolidating their administrative structures.
  • Transforming the New Markets Tax Credit into a federal grant-making program.
  • Helping states do more to "implement and oversee processes to prevent, identify, and recover improper payments and to reduce the billions of dollars that are annually lost to improper Medicaid payments."
Judging from the reception of this report on Capitol Hill and across the news media, it would appear that there is much interest in finding ways to promote improved coordination of services. To borrow a phrase from the Roosevelt administration, "We Do Our Part" at the National Resource Center to make the coordination between public transportation and human services an effective reality.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

No need to hold your least not this week

Many people in the nation's public transit community were becoming increasingly worried this past week, when speculation increased by the minute that there would be a lapse in federal appropriations, and at the same time, the legislative authority for highway and transit programs under SAFETEA-LU also would lapse. With regard to federal spending, every government agency was readying its "contingency plans," and preparing the messages to communicate to grantees and customers. Within the US Department of Transportation (DOT), extra effort was being paid to what could or could not be done if there were to be a lapse in authorizations.

However, the cause for concern has passed, if only for the moment.

A short-term continuing resolution has been signed into law that keeps federal funds on tap for two more weeks, through March 18, 2011. As was widely reported in the news media, this stopgap measure included several billion dollars of budget cuts, but none of those cuts, not even those identified within the DOT, appear likely to have any effect on transit programs or grantees. In general, the spending cuts under this continuing resolution represent programs that were carried over from last year's appropriations, but which neither President Obama nor Congress had any intention of funding this year in the first place.

Today, President Obama is expected to sign another bill into law: the Surface Transportation Extension Act of 2011. This bill basically extends SAFETEA-LU through the end of the current fiscal year. This takes a lot of the pressure off both Congress and the DOT, in the short term, but pressures to renew our nation's federal highway and transit programs remain very real and very urgent.

While worries over SAEFTEA-LU authorizations may have eased for now, the issue of federal appropriations continues to loom large. Expect more last-minute legislative drama in two weeks' time.