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Transit security funding gets snarled in traffic

(The following story by Daniel Fowler appeared on the Congressional Quarterly website on April 13, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Grant recipients have failed to spend almost all of the money awarded to them for transit security in the last few years, a recent Homeland Security Department report says.

Now, the department is trying to determine why about 97 percent of the money it distributed between fiscal years 2006 and 2008 is still sitting around unspent and what can be done to expedite the process.

The report, by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Transportation Security Administration, said that the grantees had claimed only a small portion of the $758.4 million the federal government awarded under its Transit Security Grant Program, which aims to improve security on bus, rail and ferry systems in urban areas. FEMA officials placed the amount spent at about $23.1 million.

Officials from FEMA and TSA have been meeting with transit agencies around the country to get to the bottom of the situation.

FEMA said the federal government gave the states the funding for DHS-approved projects and the states were to dole the money out to transit agencies. But, for whatever reason, the states have yet to spend the remaining $735.2 million balance.

John P. Sammon, assistant administrator of TSA's Office of Transportation Sector Network Management, said at a House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing in late March that about 15 agencies in seven states account for the vast majority of the unspent money.

"We should be able to get back to you and tell you where this is, where it's sitting according to their plans, and what we think the delays are and what we think we ought to do to speed up this backlog of money," Sammon said.

His agency and FEMA agreed to provide the subcommittee with a report on the status of the funding and related recommendations by midsummer he said.

As for what's causing the hold-up, Tracey Trautman, deputy assistant administrator of FEMA's Grant Programs Directorate, said state and local agencies have to follow their own regulations, which can delay the time it takes to complete a project and fully expend funds.

Over the years, various review processes and extensions of spending timetables also have slowed the pace of expenditure, FEMA and TSA's report found.

However, the slow rate of spending doesn't mean security efforts have stalled, said Ross Ashley, the assistant administrator of FEMA's Grant Programs Directorate.

While it is true grant dollars might not have become available as quickly as everybody would have liked, Ashley said, "that doesn't mean that money is not being used. Critical grant-funded projects are under way in every state and being executed today."

TSA officials said the agency has taken steps to speed up the awarding of grants, including overhauling the methodology and ranking system it uses; the agency has also taken the state governments out of the process for fiscal 2009, eliminating the middle man.

However, it remains too early to tell how this change will impact the spending time line, TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches said.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

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