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Short-staffed FRA draws fire over high-speed rail efforts

(The following story by Matt Kelley appeared on the USA Today website on March 9, 2010.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal agency in charge of $8 billion in economic stimulus spending on high-speed-rail projects doesn't have the staff or expertise to properly oversee the money, government investigators and congressional critics say.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), whose main job until now had been keeping freight and passenger railroads safe, awarded the high-speed-rail grants in January — months later than planned.

The top Republican on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee called the award process "amateur hour," saying the agency didn't consult closely enough with elected officials and devoted too much money to projects helping increase speeds on existing Amtrak routes. Rep. John Mica of Florida said he's considering subpoenaing agency records to review its decision-making process.

"I'm very concerned that FRA's work missed the mark, and maybe hijacked the ability of the country to see some true high-speed rail-operations," Mica said in a telephone interview.

The rail agency didn't have enough workers to review applications by states and transportation agencies, causing delays, the Transportation Department inspector general said in a November report. The agency brought in staff from other department offices to help review 214 applications, the report said.

"Our evaluation of the agency's efforts raises significant concerns about its ability to handle these new responsibilities," the Transportation Department investigators wrote.

In a written response to the inspector general's report, Deputy Transportation Secretary John Porcari said the FRA "accomplished an enormous amount in a brief period of time."

"Over the last few months, the FRA has achieved goals that could have taken years in the past," Porcari wrote.

Agency spokesman Mark Paustenbach said the agency's policy is to be as open as possible about its decision-making process.

"Our biggest priority at the moment is to finalize agreements with states so that projects can begin and jobs can be created," Paustenbach said in an e-mail.

In 2008, Congress passed legislation directing the FRA to develop a national high-speed-rail plan. Before that plan was complete, however, the February 2009 stimulus law gave the agency the job of distributing high-speed-rail money. "Usually you design the program and then you get the money," said Stephen Van Beek of the non-partisan Eno Transportation Foundation. "Similar to other programs in the Recovery Act, this was a case where you got the money and you had to design the program around it."

In budget documents, the agency says that it added 27 workers this year and that the Obama administration is seeking $4.5 million from Congress to add 62 more staff positions to the agency next year, a 7% increase over the current 917 employees.

"It's an agency which, at its top, has some really good people," said Emil Frankel, a former top transportation policy official in the Bush administration who is now director of transportation policy for the Bipartisan Policy Center. "But they'll have to develop some additional depth."

Paustenbach said the agency will be able to handle its workload with the additional employees and the experts "loaned" from other agencies.

"Our dedicated FRA staff has already been successful," Paustenbach said.

President Obama has touted high-speed rail as a high-tech, energy-efficient transportation option. The largest share of the $8 billion in grants awarded in January went to California, which got $2.3 billion for a 220-mph route between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Florida, which got $1.3 billion to develop a 168-mph rail corridor between Tampa and Orlando.

Most of the rest went to smaller projects to increase speeds on Amtrak routes or plan for future projects in 11 other rail corridors linking large cities.

Congress added $2.5 billion more for high-speed rail to the Transportation Department's 2010 budget, and the White House has asked for $1 billion more next year.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

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