GAO Recommends Exploring Reform of Federal Surface Transportation Programs

AASHTO Journal, 8 June 2012

A study released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in April suggests Congress look at restructuring federal surface transportation programs and examine how the Federal Highway Administration’s relationship with state transportation departments may be affected.

The report, “Highway Infrastructure: Federal-State Partnership Produces Benefits and Posts Oversight Risks,” recounts how the federal-aid highway program has expanded to include broader goals, more responsibilities, and a variety of approaches for FHWA. Yet as the program expanded, FHWA has also increased its oversight role, wearing thin its resources.

GAO covered four main points in the report: how the federal-aid highway program and FHWA’s oversight have changed over time; the extent to which FHWA’s partnership approach produces benefits; the extent to which FHWA’s partnership approach poses risks; and how FHWA’s partnership with state DOTs could affect a transition toward a performance-based highway program.

The report found that FHWA’s partnership approach with states allows for identification of issues before they become larger problems, resulting in cost savings in many instances, and commitment to improvement. However, GAO also states that in moving to a performance-based highway program, this partnership could potentially result in improper or ineffective oversight of funding.

“Should Congress direct FHWA to move to a performance-based system, holding states accountable for achieving performance measures — and taking action when they do not — would be essential,” the report states. “Because of the nature of their partnership with the states, FHWA’s division offices may not be in the best position to mitigate partnership risks.”

However, GAO does not recommend eliminating the partnership approach.

“Given that the partnership produces benefits, the solution does not lie with eliminating FHWA’s partnership approach,” the report concludes. “Rather, a strategy built around leveraging the strengths of the partnership approach while managing its risks could provide a better way for FHWA to verify the states’ use of federal funds.” The full 58-page report is available at

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