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FHWA fears harming partnerships, GAO report says

“Based on GAO’s review, there may be areas where national interests are less evident and where opportunities exist to narrow FHWA’s responsibilities,” the report said. “Also, DOT should address the risks posed by its partnership approach.”

The Trucker News Services

5/30/2012

WASHINGTON — The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) benefits from using recognized partnership practices to advance the federal-aid highway program and conduct oversight, but that partnership poses risks when FHWA staff members fail to take corrective action for fear of harming those relationships, says a recent General Accounting Office report.

“As the program grew more complex, the FHWA oversight role also expanded, while its resources have not kept pace,” the report said. “This growth occurred without a well-defined overall vision of evident national interests and the federal role in achieving them. GAO has recommended Congress consider restructuring federal surface transportation programs, and for this and other reasons, funding surface transportation remains on GAO’s high-risk list.”

“An important part of the federal-state relationship is a clear delineation of roles and responsibilities informal conflict resolution, a practice that allows FHWA to proactively identify issues before they become problems, achieve cost savings and gain states’ commitment to improve their processes.”

But the GAO said it observed cases where FHWA was lax in its oversight or reluctant to take corrective action to bring states back into compliance with federal requirements, potentially resulting in improper or ineffective use of federal funds.

For example, while FHWA has made it a national priority to recoup funds from inactive highway projects — projects that have not expended funds for over one year — FHWA officials in three states we visited were reluctant to do so because of concerns about harming their partnership with the state, the report said.

“In other cases, FHWA has shown a lack of independence in decisions, putting its partners’ interests above federal interests,” the report continued. “For example, FHWA allowed two states to retain unused emergency relief allocations to fund new emergencies, despite FHWA’s policy that these funds are made available to other states with potentially higher-priority emergencies. In some instances, FHWA became actively and closely involved in implementing solutions to state problems — this can create a conflict when FHWA later must approve or review the effectiveness of those solutions.”

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The GAO recommended that Congress should consider restructuring federal surface transportation programs.

“Based on GAO’s review, there may be areas where national interests are less evident and where opportunities exist to narrow FHWA’s responsibilities,” the report said. “Also, DOT should address the risks posed by its partnership approach.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) provides about $40 billion to the states annually to build and maintain highways and bridges through the federal-aid highway program.

The GAO said the DOT generally concurred with its recommendations.

The Trucker staff can be reached to comment on this article at editor@thetrucker.com.

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